The Grounds Crew

Two weeks into my freshman year at college, I came out of the financial-aid office carrying paperwork that approved me for an on-campus job.

First Day

Two weeks into my freshman year at college, I came out of the financial-aid office carrying paperwork that approved me for an on-campus job. The choice jobs—in the library or the computer lab—went to experienced upperclassmen, who had first pick. Freshmen had to settle for work no one else wanted. I was sent to Maintenance.

The maintenance building—a long, concrete bunker—was on the backside of the campus, down a hill behind the field house. In the musty office, a secretary handed me yet another form, a survey on which I was supposed to circle my skills. I read the list: painting, plumbing, electrical, locksmith. Nothing I knew how to do. In truth I hadn’t worked a day in my life, not on a real job, anyway. Before college I had spent summers mowing lawns, pulling weeds, doing odd jobs for the neighbors. Simple labor that didn’t require training or skills. At the bottom of the list, I checked “Other” and wrote in “Odd Jobs.”

The secretary looked at the paper, sighed and said to the typist behind her, “Hey Darlene, here’s another who can’t do anything.”

“So send him to Grounds,” Darlene said. She made it sound as if Grounds were the last hope for the incompetent, a refuse heap, a bone-yard for the inept.

The secretary shrugged. “Grounds it is.”

I was sent to the very end of the building, past all other offices, to the last door. A battered pickup truck stood out front. A sign read GR UN S OF ICE. The warped, weathered door was halfway open.

I pushed my way into a cluttered, ill-lit workshop. Two men were inside. One, a huge black man, sat at a desk near the door. Farther back in the shadows, the other man occupied a dowdy armchair, an oversized, yellow hardhat cocked on his head. He flicked a jackknife at a section of yellow hose that curled snake-like over the dusty floorboards. The knife stuck into the hose. A derelict table filled the middle of the shed, the tabletop piled with hardware I couldn’t even begin to identify.

There was a split second when I had the chance to back out, to mumble, ‘‘Sorry, excuse me,” and make my escape. The moment passed. The man in the hardhat snatched up the knife.

“Howdy,” he sang out. “What can we do you for?”

“Mr. Johnson?” I said.

He jerked his thumb at the black man. “That’d be the big guy.”

Squeezed into an office chair that should have been tossed out decades before, a coal-black linebacker of a man with snow-white hair stared at me, a hard, penetrating stare made all the more menacing by the fact that we were eye to eye, even though he was sitting and I was standing. His yellow, bloodshot eyes hinted of viciousness.

Timidly I handed him the work authorization and said I had been assigned to the grounds crew.

“This here’s the place, all right,” the hardhatted man said as he flung the knife into the hose again. “So you’re the lucky one gets to be student assistant?”

Mr. Johnson studied the paper, then glared at me again.

“Stephens,” he barked.

“Yes,” I said. Then added, “sir,” almost as a reflex.

He tapped an open book, a Bible, on his desk. “You know what this is, Stephens?”

I nodded.

He handed me the book. “Then read.”

I hesitated, longing for the chance to bolt. But I didn’t move, spellbound by an authority I hadn’t expected.

“Well, go on then,” he said. “Devil got your tongue? Read out loud. Start here.”

With no way out, I did as told, my voice trembling in the stillness of the shop. It was Job he wanted read, the King James Version. Man overturned mountains, it said, cut out channels, bound up streams, brought hidden things to light. But where would wisdom be found? Man did not know the way to it.

Mr. Johnson grunted and hummed while I read. Finally he said, “You understand that, Stephens?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Tell me.”

I stared at him, then at the dusty, splintering floorboards.

“Tell me.”

He grunted and hummed some more as I stumbled through a summary of the text.

“Listen to me, Stephens,” he interrupted. “You better learn that lesson like old Job. Man do not—repeat, do not—know the way to wisdom.” He growled and laughed like there was some private joke involved. “Simple as that. Man do not know. Only wisdom there is come from God. If you can remember that, you can work for me. All right now, don’t just stand there—get yourself a sack and get on out there with Max. He going to show you how to pick up trash right. All these students learning from books but can’t think to use the garbage can.”

Relieved to escape the suffocating grease-gas-dust smell of the shop and get back into the warm September breeze, I carried a burlap sack and trailed Max up to the commons, the center of the campus. Out in the light of day, removed from the shadows of the shop, Max looked as though he belonged in a clown act, one of those circus interludes where the clowns impersonate firemen or construction workers and amuse the crowd by bollixing the job. Max was short and stumpy, not much bigger than a dwarf. His head, made the larger by his silly, yellow hardhat, was out of proportion to his body. Then the thick glasses, the toothpick in his mouth, the oversized flannel shirt, the baggy, dime-store jeans and the clomping rubber boots—I had never seen anyone so bizarre, so freakish. I wondered how anyone could go out in public looking like that, inviting ridicule.

That first hour on the job I felt miserable. We walked around picking up paper and plastic cups and aluminum cans and candy wrappers (if nothing else, Mr. Johnson was right—the students were slobs). Everywhere we went, the campus hummed with activity— stereos blasted from dorm windows; Frisbee games were in full swing; girls sunned themselves on towels and blankets. I felt humbled and humiliated. All for lack of spending money, I was reduced to picking up trash with a freak for a partner. I fervently hoped I wouldn’t run into any of the cute girls from my French class. I agonized over each slowly passing minute I dragged around that ridiculous, increasingly conspicuous trash sack, emblem of my shame. And yet it seemed no one noticed us. Professors, students, deans—they passed us by without a second glance. I thought for sure that Max’s appearance would elicit giggles—maybe even little yelps of fright—from some of the co-eds. But no. No one paid the least attention, as though we were invisible. Two or three people even dropped trash onto the grass not 10 yards from us. But Max seemed not the least bit conscious of either his outlandish appearance or his lowly status. He nodded at people and said, “Afternoon.” He babbled about movies I had never heard of and told stupid jokes, so excited that spittle trickled on his lips when he giggled over the punch lines. I decided he was an utter fool. Before my sack was half full, I resolved to quit at the end of the day. But when I went back to the maintenance office, the secretary shook her head. “You got no trade skills, honey,” she said. “We can’t use you nowhere else. Take it or leave it.”

Shop Talk

I dreaded going to work, dreaded it more than my required calculus class or the tedium of the language lab. Three times a week that long fall semester, I trudged down to the Grounds shop to report for work. More than anything else about the job, I hated the shop. To me it was an alien, somewhat sinister place—a place of dust, grease and cobwebs. A place of grime, clutter and the odor of old oil. I couldn’t wait to get out of there, and yet I was invariably forced to spend an excruciating 15 minutes, 20 minutes, half-hour, trapped in the dim, airless shop while Max and Mr. Johnson tinkered and talked. Before entering the shop and abandoning all hope, I had to take a deep breath and steel myself.

Just past the threshold, Mr. Johnson sat at his desk, squinting at the small print of his Bible. Over his head a single fluorescent tube provided milky light to the front part of the shop. On the desk, pipe joints held down stacks of yellowed requisition forms, time sheets, memos. An ape head carved from a coconut rocked on the gritty desktop, the ape’s astonished eyes fixed on the doorway, greeting whoever entered. Then Mr. Johnson’s yellow eyes glanced up, his face already set in a scowl.

“Sit down, Stephens, while we sort out this mess.”

“Have a seat. Take a load off,” Max said, pointing his jackknife at a castoff, grease-stained executive chair missing one caster.

I moved to the back of the shop, where flickering fluorescence surrendered to shadow, where the pervasive smell of oil mixed with the stink of fertilizers and poisons. I sat in what became my appointed spot, behind the worktable that took up the middle of the shop. Clutter surrounded me. The table was piled with assorted pipes, pipe wrenches, sprinkler heads, hoses, lawnmower blades, spark plugs and pieces of broken tools—hoe heads, shovel shafts, saw blades. Slanted shelves along the walls gave tentative support to boxes of nails, paper cups of washers and canisters of bleeding chemicals.

“Have a look at this new parts calendar,” Max said. “You seen knockers like that before?”

“Max, quit your clowning.”

“You’re just jealous ‘cause you never seen knockers like these.”

“Max, man go to the Army 27 years he see plenty of everything. More than he want to.”

“I bet Steve here sees plenty of it over in Taylor Hall.”

“Quit it, Max. Young man don’t need no more foolish thoughts than he already got.”

So the shop talk went, Max and Mr. Johnson bantering away their quarter-hour break and then some, while I awaited my assignment, pining to escape. From scattered comments I learned bits and pieces about their lives. After putting in 27 years, Mr. Johnson had made sergeant, the most an uneducated black man could expect from the Army. Max was an epileptic—that explained why he wore the hardhat everywhere and rode a bicycle to work.

But I avoided taking much interest in Max and Mr. Johnson. I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, but part of my discomfort in the shop came from having to spend time around them. Subconsciously I shied away. They represented difference I didn’t know how to deal with. As a consequence I remained aloof and afraid, as if their “conditions”—blackness and epilepsy—might somehow rub off on me. In my sheltered life, I had never before worked closely with a black man. For all I knew, epilepsy was no different than leprosy. It was as though they had contagious diseases—though surely the dis-ease was entirely my own.

Early in the semester, I received a writing assignment to interview someone interesting. It never crossed my mind to interview Max or Mr. Johnson.

Trash and Leaves

Whenever Mr. Johnson decided the shop talk had gone on long enough, he took out his Bible. Max, in turn, picked up anything close at hand—a broken sprinkler head, a malfunctioning nozzle—and began to tinker, trying to appear occupied.

Mr. Johnson didn’t really read the Bible. He improvised, taking as prompts whatever words his curtailed elementary education and years of church attendance allowed him to recognize. In a heavy baritone, he intoned our daily lesson: “And in those days the prophet Jose, he forgot the Lord God, and he betook hisself to consort with the prostitutes of Old Babylon. And the Lord God got good and angry and sent an angel saying, ‘Behold Jose, you lost the favor of your Lord God and, yea, the wages of your sins is death.’”

Then, putting down the Bible, Mr. Johnson turned to me and said, “Young Stephens, you listen up. You going to read up on the Book of Jose and tell me about it tomorrow. Now you get yourself a rake and get on over to Taylor Hall and rake them leaves. That old buck maple been dropping its leaves like no business. And you be thinking about Jose now and his troubles with the ladies of the night. Max, you going to fool with that old pipe all the day? Come on now. We got to get on over to the ’ministration and see to some problem with the flower bed the Miss Dean calling up about.”

I spent most of the fall semester raking leaves and picking up trash. From the first I hated the work. The physical labor didn’t bother me. I didn’t mind going out in the sharp, cool autumnal air, a fresh change from long hours in the stuffy labs and lecture halls. What I despised was the sense of humiliation I felt doing such lowly work in public. I tended to loiter on the job, raking desultorily, occasionally stopping to pick up trash if no students were around to see me. I tried to act with aplomb, as if it were only by some quirk of fate that I was outside with a rake or a trash bag. To me it was the worst part of the job. I wondered how the maintenance regulars could tolerate doing such work every day of their lives. I was relieved to know I would escape such a fate.

I didn’t do a very good job, and I didn’t really care what anybody thought about it. And for the first two months, Mr. Johnson didn’t say a word about my work, or lack of it. Then on a cold, drizzly day in November, Mr. Johnson came around in his truck. He rolled down the window and said, “Let’s go, Stephens. Too cold and wet. We calling it a day.”

I climbed into the cab, and for a long minute, we just sat there while Mr. Johnson contemplated the courtyard I was supposed to have been raking and the small mound of leaves I had raked, the woeful result of two hours’ work. The silence became uncomfortable. Then he said, “Thought you be finished by now.” It was a matter-of-fact comment, no tone of reproach.

“It’s a big yard,” I said.

He put the truck in gear and drove off. He didn’t answer until we were almost back to the shop.

“Yes, sir, that’s a big yard, big yard with a lot of leaves. But don’t worry, Stephens. Someday you be man enough for the job. That’s right, you still growing. You still a boy.”

Still his voice suggested no reproach, but Mr. Johnson saw my annoyance. “Don’t like that, eh? Stephens don’t like being called no boy. No, young Stephens don’t want to be called no boy. He think he a man. Make his blood boil. Believe me, I know, I know. Been called boy too goddamned much not to know. And let me tell you this: Boy don’t become no man ’less he learn to put in a clay’s work, a honest day’s work. Remember that, boy.”

During homecoming week Mr. Johnson told me to meet Max and him at the football field Sunday morning. He needed an extra hand to clean the football stadium the day after the big game. On Sunday I dragged myself from bed and went to the stadium. Max and Mr. Johnson were already busy when I arrived in the gray half-light of that cold, November morning. Flurries—the first of the year— eddied in the wind currents. The goal posts shivered whenever the wind gusted. Max and Mr. Johnson were climbing the concrete rows of the stands, stooping to pick up trash the crowd had left behind for them. With each cold blast, hot-dog wrappers and Styrofoam cups scuttled across the steps. I had come unprepared, and after 20 minutes, my hands were red and raw. I was wearing tennis shoes, and soon my feet were numb. Mr. Johnson made me sit in the truck with the heater on until I warmed up. Then he gave me his gloves to wear.

We spent another two hours picking up trash until the bed of the truck was full of black polyethylene sacks. I was about to leave when Mr. Johnson called me over. “You really don’t like doing this, do you?” he said.

I said nothing.

The flurrying snow caught in Mr. Johnson’s white, curly hair and melted into droplets. His yellow, watery eyes glistened. “Let me tell you something,” he said. “I druther be some place else, too. That’s the way it is with work. Always somewhere else better’n what you got to do. I been in all kind of nice places. I been in brothels with sweet-as-sin gals. I been in mansions, servant to a rich lady. I been in dance halls with the trumpet blowing glory how-the-lu-yeah. I go to the best place there is, the House of the Lord, often as I can. Sometimes you think anywhere is better than right where you is.”

He fell silent and looked up into the gray sky, the swirls of snow whipping around and above us like a biblical pestilence. Mr. Johnson looked out over the empty and now clean stadium.

Then he grabbed my shoulder and held it tight. “But you know there’s worse things, too. I been in plenty worse places. I been in jail, kicked and punched by the Mon-roe County sheriff. I gone into swamps and jungles all because of some lieutenant’s fool ideas. I seen enough to know here ain’t so bad. I’ll take honest, hard work any day. Now you listen to me. I don’t want you to come back until you is ready and willing. Man’s got to be in the right frame to do a good job.”

Then he walked off to the truck, and I watched him and Max drive off to the dump. Only later, as I was walking back to the dorms, did I realize I had just been fired.

Snow Day

The night before the winter term began, a blizzard hit, burying the campus under a foot of snow. Well before dawn, I heard in my sleep a steady scraping sound beginning far off and drawing closer. I looked out the window and saw Max pushing a shovel along the sidewalk outside the dark dormitory. Wet snow glistened off his hard hat. Mr. Johnson’s truck was in the parking lot, loaded with sand and fitted in front with a plow. I lay down again on my bed, glad I wasn’t out there. Two months had passed since Mr. Johnson dismissed me from the job, and I hadn’t missed it in the least.

I tried to fall back asleep, but the sound of the shovel and the churning of the plow kept me awake. I felt sorry for Max and Mr. Johnson out there working before dawn in a snowstorm so the college could follow its normal schedule. During my brief stint on Grounds, I had learned just how much the college depended on its anonymous crew of blue-collar workers. I had learned, too, just how little those people were acknowledged. People who had families and warm houses and who sure as hell didn’t want to get up for work on a cold, snowy morning, but who did it anyway. Even then, at that moment, the dining-hall workers, having driven through snow-filled streets, were mixing batter and heating grills for the students’ breakfast. And Max, who couldn’t drive because of the epilepsy, had to have walked to campus hours before his regular starting time just to clean snow from campus sidewalks.

Lying in bed, thinking about these people, I got a strange feeling— a combination of guilt, regret and curiosity. I would have preferred to stay warm in bed. Instead I got up, put on several layers of my warmest clothes, and went out to join the Grounds crew. Max, his ears bright red, laughed when he saw me all bundled up. “You ain’t cold, are you? C’mon and join the picnic.” I found Mr. Johnson behind the truck, shoveling sand onto the road. He glanced at me, then turned away, kept shoveling. He threw down three shovelsful of dirt before he spoke.

“Stephens, that’s your shovel there. You get on over with Max and start cleaning. Double-time. We going to be busy as the devil today”

“Yes, sir.”

Max and I started on the walkways around the student union building. As soon as one walk was done, Mr. Johnson was honking and pointing us somewhere else. We shoveled out the administration building, the science building, the library, the dining hall. It was damn hard work, backbreaking, but I discovered rewards, too—seeing fresh snow heavy on pine branches, hearing drift-deadened sounds, experiencing the eerie, blue light of a winter morning without sunrise. I remembered what Mr. Johnson had told me back in the football stadium: “Here’s not so bad. That’s what work’s all about.”

We were still at it when the snow started falling again—big flakes, a new layer forming on the paths we’d already shoveled, all our work wasted.

Mr. Johnson appeared in the truck and waved us over. “That’s it for now,” he said. “Let’s go down and get warm, see what this snow s gonna do.”

I could leave. Here was my chance to go back to my room, change, head over for a hot breakfast in a dining hall warm with smells and the hum of college talk, the windows steamed so that you couldn’t even see the falling snow. That’s where I wanted to be, but Max was telling me to come on down to the shop for doughnuts and hot chocolate. He moved over to make room for me on the bench seat.

The shop was steamy, the radiator crackling and whistling. We stripped to our long Johns and hung up the wet clothes by the radiator. Max pulled out old, stained blankets that smelled of oil and gasoline, and we tossed them over the derelict chairs and burrowed in like wet dogs. Johnson passed around a box of day-old doughnuts, and Max boiled water in a beat-up electric pot. Outside the snow was falling, piling up, our work obliterated. Inside, powdered-sugar crumbs fell on our clothes. Our skin itched and tingled as it warmed up.

Mr. Johnson leaned back in his chair, gave me his stern sergeant’s glare. “Max,” he said. “We got a college boy with us today.”

“That’s right,” Max said.

“Yep. Smart boy. Maybe he tell us what this word mean.” Mr. Johnson leaned over his Bible and spelled out a word.

“Retribution?” I said. “It’s like revenge, pay-back. Giving what somebody’s got coming.”

“That right? Stephens, you smart boy. Yep, real smart boy. Getting good grades? Good. Good. Well then, maybe you can tell me something. Why is it dogs go ’round sniffing each other’s asses? See that, Max? He don’t know. All that book-reading, and he don’t know the first thing about nature. Well, Stephens, let me tell you.”

He then launched into a long, involved story about Bulldog, the boss of all other dogs, who saw to it that there was order and harmony and justice in Dogland. But one disgruntled mutt talked the other dogs into rebellion, until finally Bulldog had to show the rebels their place. Bulldog whupped all the other dogs, whupped their asses off, so that afterward they had to grab whatever hind end they could. And that was why to this day, dogs went around sniffing each other— looking for their proper hiney.

Mr. Johnson eyed me severely. “So you see, Stephens, smart man’s got to know who’s who and what’s what in this world, or watch out for re-tri-bu-tion.”

I listened, spellbound by the storytelling and the Miltonic tale. An entire class period had slipped by. It was the best lecture I’d heard all term.

The snow was still coming down, hard as ever. Mr. Johnson said, “OK, I’m going to give it another couple hours, and if this snow don’t quit, we have to clear off what’s ’cumulated.” He dismissed me to my studies but got me to promise I’d come back in the afternoon.

“You’re on call now. You know what that means?”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“All right then, what’s it mean?”

“It means I’ve got to come when I’m called.”

Once again he gave me the sergeant’s glare with his yellow, watery eyes. “It means, Stephens, somebody needs you. It means your services are indispensable. I need me a good man to do this job. You that man.”


I spent the better part of the next three years on the Grounds crew. Better jobs opened up in the library and in the labs, but I turned them down to stay with Max and Mr. Johnson. Each summer I worked full time, 8 to 5, on the different details—lawn-mowing, sprinkler-setting, weed-pulling. But mostly I helped Max and Mr. Johnson fix pipes. The water lines on campus had been laid before World War II, and by the time I came to work on Grounds, the pipes had turned rusty and weak. Rather than replace the whole system, the administration found it cheaper to keep Max and Mr. Johnson busy with the Sisyphean task of replacing corroded sections of pipe wherever leaks sprang. Every few days a new leak was discovered, and we would dig a hole or trench down to the pipe, then figure out how to patch it.

Max was the expert. He liked solving problems, and he liked explaining the finer points of his solutions to a tyro like me. Kneeling in the dirt, he would take pipe wrenches, hacksaws, clamps and other tools, all the while describing his procedures in exact detail. There was always a hint that he was taking some maverick approach to pipe repair that so-called experts would disapprove of. “Now most folks’d tell you a T-joint’s best here, but you ask me, an elbow’s the best way to go. How’s come? Let me tell you.” And then Max would expound his theory on elbow pipe joints or on clamp replacement, as carefully as any professor in the classroom would explain any theory. In fact Max took his role as teacher seriously, and he always tested the lesson by having me do some of the work while he observed and instructed. “A little tighter there,” he would say. “You don’t want to cut it too close now, reason being you won’t have room for the clamp.”

Max’s dissertations on pipe work formed only a small part of a daylong discourse. Each morning before we could set out for our work sites, Mr. Johnson had me read from the Old Testament. Then he gave another of what Max called “the big guy’s sermons,” which were in fact exegeses on the text I had just read. Mr. Johnson would lean back in his beat-up office chair, brow knit in concentration, an occasional grunt issuing from his throat. If he held up his hand and said, “What’s that, Stephens, what’s that?” I had to read the passage again, slowly, while he nodded and approved.

“Now it seems old David got hisself in a bind,” he might say when I finished. “He thought he could do it all on his own, but he forgot he need God. That was his first mistake. Got a mind all his own, and that’s what lead him to trouble. That’s right. Well, all right now, let’s go do a job.”

But that wasn’t the end of it. Driving the truck Mr. Johnson would comment on the passage a little more. And still more while we were digging holes or eating lunch. He kept the text in his head all day. Sometimes he might talk about other things—Roadrunner cartoons, Duke Ellington, Army life, Jackie Robinson, Amos and Andy, or a soldier named Dumb Old Butch. But always he would be turning the biblical story over in his head until he had thought it through and had his say. David was his particular favorite, but it wasn’t until the second summer, when I learned Mr. Johnson’s given name was David, that I started to hear the double edge to his commentaries: “David got a hard head.” “David think he know all the answers.” “David write a pretty song but sometimes he forget why he singing.” Mr. Johnson told and retold biblical stories in a Miltonic manner, elaborating the story line as he went along and commenting like an epic narrator. Unlike Milton he had no one to write it all down.

He was full of stories. On any given day, I heard about segregation in the Army, Georgia in the 1920s, jazzmen, comedy classics and football before helmets. His running commentary favored occasional moments of triumph and a seemingly endless series of exempla on the theme of humility. To be humble was, for this giant man, life’s ultimate lesson.

“That coyote, he been kilt must be about a thousand times. Why? ‘Cause he careless. He forget what he done and why he done it.”

“I’m telling you, Stephens, when Duke blow the A train from the station, there ain’t no finer sound in this world. Repeat, in this world. ‘Cause when Gabriel blow the judgment horn, even the Duke gonna fall to his knees and bow to the glory of the Lord.”

“Now Dumb Old Butch thought he got clean away with one, but the sarge been watching the whole thing and kick that poor boy black assbackwards.”

As the long, hot summers wore on, I even grew to like the work well enough. At least I came to understand that even the most menial task had an art to it, a perfect execution to strive for—a lesson I learned the day Mr. Johnson left me alone to dig a hole. When he returned he criticized my hurried, lazy work and explained to me why the shape of a hole mattered. These were things I had never before considered. When I first started on the Grounds crew, I hated the work. I hated it in part because it seemed silly and pointless, hardly worth the effort. And I hated it, too, because I assumed that I was smarter than the blue-collar workers whose directions I was supposed to follow. Now I knew better.

Other students came to work on Grounds. On breaks they would say things like, “Man, this is the pits,” and “Those two guys are real freaks,” and “Does the big guy ever shut up?” They wondered how I could put up with it. After a week or two, they disappeared.

The Boneyard

Behind the maintenance building, down a dirt slope, was a place that Max and Mr. Johnson called the boneyard. It was chock-a-block with long pipes, stacks of broken bricks, toilets, sinks, odd chunks of marble and granite, rolled-up cyclone fencing, barbed-wire bales, rusted truck parts, even an old, H-shaped goal post painted in faded school colors. Maybe once a month, we had to go down to the bone-yard, usually to hunt for a long section of pipe for a major repair job.

Mr. Johnson picked and hunted through the debris of the bone-yard, now and then tossing some serendipity into the truck bed.

“This is the boneyard, Stephens,” he would say. “This is the junk pile, what-all nobody got no use for, except us. We use the junk. That’s what we do. We take everybody’s junk, and we put it to use.”

But Max waited up by the shop, tinkering with a sprinkler head or sharpening lawnmower blades while we went down to fetch some pipe. Once Max had had a seizure while he was alone in the boneyard. Now he wouldn’t go back down to the boneyard, and he didn’t like to work anywhere on campus alone. That’s why Max wanted me to go along with him to fix the sprinklers. That’s why he taught me how to repair pipes. That’s why he taught me what to do if he had another seizure, how to lay his head, how to keep him from biting his tongue, whom to call.

Whenever I went to the boneyard with Johnson, I would look up at the pine-tree tops against the blue summer sky, and I would imagine Max feeling the aura come on, the tingling in his hands rising to his head, then the shrill cry, the tonic spasm, the clonic contraction of the muscles, his face purple and gray with cyanosis. I saw him lying there alone, those same shimmering trees fading out on him, the wind in the pine trees making a sound like the ocean heard from a distance, and I would shiver.

The Flood

Just before dawn, unseen on the empty campus, water began bubbling up through the grass of the commons, the beautiful central section of the campus. All Saturday morning the waters spread until the inundation had turned the commons into a small lake.

The president of the college, out jogging on his campus, discovered the disaster. Red-faced, dripping with sweat, he had been splashing along a sidewalk, likely mulling over a fiscal problem until his drenched feet recalled him to the moment, and he saw that something was not right. He scanned the lawn. The lake had expanded by then to overtake the flower beds near the administration building. Grass jutted above the shimmering surface like reeds in a pond. It was an unmitigated disaster: The next day was commencement. Several receptions, not to mention the commencement ceremony itself, were scheduled to be held right there. Featured in view books and on catalog covers, the commons was “a real selling point” in the president’s estimation. Often he had pointed out to trustees the importance of campus appearance in students’ decisions to attend the college. That appearance also contributed to the satisfaction of the parents, who were, after all, paying the bills. With water lapping at his jogging shoes, the president must have been devastated. Soggy grass, flooded flower beds. Commencement would be ruined.

From his office the president would call the provost with the news. The provost would get right on the situation and call the head of Maintenance. The head of Maintenance called the Grounds supervisor, Mr. Johnson, who was cleaning the garage for his wife. Mr. Johnson called his assistant, Max, and told him that they were to head over to the campus right away.

Max had been about to go on a picnic with his wife to their favorite place, an abandoned drive-in theater out where the state highway intersects with University Boulevard. They liked to spread a blanket on the cracked, weed-split concrete between the poles that once held the metal box speakers you would hang in your car window. The big concrete wall that once served as a screen was still there, no longer white. Max and Ida would eat liver-sausage sandwiches and pickles and big Macintosh apples from their own tree. They would look up at the screen and remember movies they’d seen—hundreds of movies since they were teen-agers and met at Epilepsy Foundation outings and fell in love, sharing something they had in common with no one else at the high school. They remembered thrillers and comedies, shaggy dogs and darned cats and Jerry Lewis being nutty, great escapes and dirty dozens and all those Edgar Allen Poe stories, rated M for Mature. Now they saw the same shows on television, Saturday afternoons or late night, and they heard the words for the first time. Back in the drive-in days, they had had to watch from alongside the highway, sitting on their bicycles. Epileptics were not allowed to drive.

One look when Max hung up the phone told Ida that there would be no picnic at the drive-in that afternoon. She took the blanket and bottles of sodas and the lunch buckets from the side baskets on Max’s bicycle and put in his tool kit, his rubber boots. Max changed into overalls, put on his yellow hardhat, and rode over to the college.

Mr. Johnson was already there, standing in the middle of the new pond and staring at the bubbling water that indicated a break in the line, a burst pipe somewhere down in the ground. Max rode up, whistling. He put on his waders and sloshed out to Mr. Johnson, splashing like a kid. He loved this sort of thing—there was a problem, something to tinker with, and by God, he got to do the tinkering. By the time he reached the old black man, Max was all whistles and smiles.

In his severe voice, just as he’d said a dozen times a day for the previous six years and would no doubt have to say again and again in the years ahead, Mr. Johnson told Max to quit his clowning.

Max ignored him in his excitement about fixing the break.

Mr. Johnson grunted and told him to get on over there and turn off the main.

Max strolled over to the old truck that Mr. Johnson had parked on the sidewalk by the administration building. He took a long rod from the truck bed—the “key” that opened and shut the water main. Behind a bush outside the Dean of Students office, Max slid a metal plate aside and dropped the key into the hole until he found the valve. A few turns of the rod, and the water was shut off.

Normally they would have waited for the water to recede before beginning work, but it was an emergency—commencement was to be held on those very lawns. Moreover, that was the water main to the administration building, nerve center of the campus; they couldn’t just leave the venerable brick building without water. So Max and Mr. Johnson started in with the shovels, thrusting into the watery muck. Each shovelful produced a sharp, sucking sound from the earth.

The hot, June sun bore down on them—good for drying out the lawn, bad for digging holes. Max’s overalls turned a dark, wet blue as he dug. Sweat dripped from Mr. Johnson’s white hair. Every few shovelsful, the old man straightened, placed a gloved hand on his lower back, arched.

Max told him to take it easy and rest, let him finish the hole.

Finally Max found the pipe. They could hear the gurgling of the pipe’s wound, but water from the lawn kept pouring back into the hole, making it impossible for Max to clear the mud away so they could have a look at the break.

Mr. Johnson decided it was a waste of time. They would need sandbags to hold back the water.

An hour later they had the sandbags in place, a circle of them around the hole.

And then Ida rode up on her bicycle with the picnic lunch they had planned to take to the old drive-in. The three of them sat in the pickup bed, eating the liver-sausage sandwiches and drinking sodas.

By the time they got back to the hole, the water had drained away and they could examine the pipe, assess the problem, determine what they’d need to fix it. It was what Max loved. Pipes. Their wounds. Healing them. He took off his gloves, wiped dirt from the break, fingered the split pipe. It was 3-inch pipe, Max said, and they would have to cut her back yea far and give her a Band-Aid.

Mr. Johnson always yielded to Max’s authority on those matters, but he was gruff in his yielding. They had to get on with it. They had a lot more to do than just sit around all day.

Repairing the pipe involved sawing out the broken section, going down to the shop, finding two nipples for 3-inch pipe, fitting those two nipples into a section of replacement pipe that would match what had been cut out, driving back to the repair site, and working the replacement pipe into the original. This last procedure was the most delicate because the two men had to lift up ever so slightly on the pipe in order to have enough leeway to get the precisely cut, nipple-extended replacement piece inside the original pipe. Too much lift, and they’d crack the pipe somewhere else. Sweating madly— for by then the afternoon sun was right over them—they groaned and sweet-talked the pipe while they twisted, nudged, wrenched the replacement piece into place, Max calling on Christ Almighty.

Mr. Johnson, breathing hard, warned him not to take the Lord’s name in vain.

Max was applying two clamps—he called them Band-Aids—to the pipe, tightening down the metal clamps so that there would be no leaks. Again his fingers had to be ginger—too much tightening might crack the pipe.

Then they tested their work. Max returned to the bush where the key still stood in the buried iron box that encased the main line’s valve. He opened the valve. Mr. Johnson sat on a sandbag, looking down at the repaired pipe. Water gurgled, rushed through the pipe.

A little drip, he called.

Max slogged back across the wet lawn, plopped himself down in the hole. “No problem,” he said, taking out a wrench and tightening the clamps a turn or two. The drip slowed, then stopped altogether.

All done, Max sang.

It was past 6, dusk approaching, when they got the hole covered and the wet sandbags—so heavy it took both men to move one—lifted into the truck.

The lawn was still soaked, a wide sheet of standing water. Mr. Johnson and Max took up the shovels again and dug channels across the lawn to the road where there was a drain. In two places they had to sledgehammer through a cement curb. Slowly, surely, the excess water began to follow the channels and splatter into the drain. Mr. Johnson watched the water, held his aching back with his hand.

He sent Max home for dinner and told him to be back in an hour, that they had some prettying up to do.

“Prettying up” meant this: In the dark of the night, with the moon and the campus streetlamps and sometimes the truck headlamps providing light, Max and Mr. Johnson gently raked the heavy mud over the wet grass until it was distributed evenly across the lawn. Then they broke up the clods as best they could, watered the lawn to settle the mud, raked it again, watered it again, and raked it once more until the evidence of the flood had disappeared. Next they mixed concrete in a wheelbarrow and repaired the curb that they had broken. A little after 3 in the morning, the campus deathly still except for the prowling of a security guard who periodically returned to watch their work, Max and Mr. Johnson drove the truck down to the greenhouse and, by flashlight, chose several dozen gardenias, begonias and chrysanthemums. They returned to the damaged flower beds, uprooted the ruined flowers, dug holes for the new flowers, and planted them in neat rows along the administration building and the road that enters the campus. Then they returned to the maintenance complex where, on a back lot, they loaded a pile of bark into the truck, hauled it up to the flower beds, and shoveled it all off the truck. At dawn Mr. Johnson left Max working on the bark and drove over to a nursery to purchase, out of his own pocket (for there was no time to put in the requisition forms and wait for Purchasing’s approval), enough sod to cover the scars left on the lawn after all their digging and channeling.

A few cars began arriving on campus while Mr. Johnson laid down the sod, cutting it with a spade so that the pieces of turf fit snugly. That huge man—at least 6 foot 6—was bending over, sore back and all, pressing the edges of sod into place, studying the seams carefully, frowning if they were too obvious. When he stood up, he took the spade handle, held it across his spine with the crook of his elbows, arched his back and winced.

The sod in place, Mr. Johnson crossed over to the flower beds. Max had dug a row of holes and was planting the new flowers. Mr. Johnson followed behind him, spreading bark with his cracked and callused hands. Meanwhile a crew from the dining hall arrived with tables to set up on the still-soggy lawn. Five people prepared the coffee service, the orange juice, the plates of doughnuts for the morning’s reception. The aroma of coffee blew on the breeze. The parking lots began to fill up. “The big boys,” as Max called them, were arriving.

It was almost 8 o’clock. Mr. Johnson told Max to get on his bicycle, ride on down and punch them in.

Two hours later, a crowd of graduating students and their parents stood around on the commons, chewing doughnuts and drinking coffee. Slants of light from the warm, spring sun filtered through the pine trees. The campanile chimes told the hour. The college president circulated among the crowd, shaking hands, extending his warmest congratulations to the graduates. He approached our family group, introduced himself, shook hands all around—even my little sister’s, calling her a future alumna. We all laughed, then the president asked me what I intended to do next, nodded approvingly to my answer. The president assured my mother that it had been a pleasure having her son at the college. Then he pointed out the newly dedicated student dining hall, the health center, built with funds he had raised. “Well, I must say,” my mother told him, “the campus is gorgeous.” The president agreed, beaming. “Yes, it’s a lovely place.” In the background a giant black man in soiled, soaked overalls and a dwarfish man in a yellow hardhat hauled off plastic sacks full of the reception’s trash.


On the day I graduated from college, I attended a long series of social events, starting with a breakfast for graduating English majors and their families. A student poet read a poem full of roads and seas and other allegorical images. The department chair quoted Aristotle, Pascal and Mark Twain. The ceremonies continued at the baccalaureate service, where the campus chaplain went on rather long about trials in life and the ways in which God would guide us.

During commencement the president of the college reiterated his pride in the graduates and expressed his confidence that, as we climbed our individual ladders of success in life, we would feel the support and the love and training our alma mater had provided for us during those four years and which would continue to guide us in our long, prosperous futures. Then he advised us to take the opportunity one last time to thank the teachers who had taught us, worked with us and brought us to where we were today.

It was a warm day in spring, the trees full of buds and green leaves, the grass soft and lush and perfect beneath our chairs. In between bagpipe anthems, cicadas sang softly in the treetops. The stage party fanned themselves with their mortarboard caps, and we graduates squirmed in our seats, eager to celebrate. But first a U.S. congressman took the stage to urge us to remember five main points he had learned in his life. Each point seemed to boil down to some version of “Love God, neighbor and country.” When he was finished, we assented and applauded.

Commencement ended with tossed caps, shouts, squeals, photographs. At a reception, the graduates introduced their parents to favorite faculty members, said their goodbyes, hugged, kissed, and wept. I said goodbye to the English faculty, repeating several times my rather vague plans for the near future. Those professors had lectured me on Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare, Austen, Eliot and O’Connor. They had listened to my semi-coherent comments in class, nodding, mulling, and sometimes refuting before proceeding with the lecture. They had marked my writing with long, illegible marginalia full of question marks and arrows. Now they were saying they’d miss me. They told me to write letters and let them know what was going on in my life. But already I could see they were looking over my shoulder at the students arriving to take my place in what, for the faculty, is an endlessly repeated four-year cycle. My face was already transforming into the composite face of students they had taught over the years. In turn they were already blending in my mind into an amorphous, androgynous being—the English professor—who had insisted a poem said something I couldn’t hear, who had assured me the poem did not say what I thought it said.

And so, rite of passage concluded, I went back to my dorm room to finish last-minute packing. I felt disappointed, but I didn’t know why. It was inevitable, I assumed, to feel that the commencement ceremony was anticlimactic, to experience some sort of letdown. But I also felt that it had been incomplete, that I was about to leave the college without a sense of closure.

Then, sitting on the mattress of the stripped bed, looking out the window at the budding trees and the green lawn where a sprinkler shot its spray in a wide, prismatic arc across the grass, I realized what I had left undone. The president had invited us to seek out and thank those who had taught us during our time at the college. Dutifully I had thanked the professors who introduced me to books and ideas. But there were other teachers I had yet to thank.

I found them out on the commons, at the site of the ceremony. The stage had been abandoned, stripped of symbols—the flags, the insignia, the emblems, and the flowers all gone. Max was working his way between the folding chairs set up on the grass, picking up the ceremonial waste—programs, tissues, film canisters. Mr. Johnson was folding chairs and hauling them to the truck. They heard my call and came over to me, laughing, congratulating. We said our goodbyes. “Don’t be a stranger,” Max said, his eyes suddenly red and wet. Then he patted my back, extended a plastic sack, and said, “Hey, how about picking up some trash on your way out?”

Mr. Johnson threw a big arm around me, squeezed tight, and said, “Oh, shut your big mouth, Max. Stephens don’t need to pick up trash no more. He an educated man now.”

About the Author

Stephen Benz

Stephen Benz is the author of Guatemalan Journey and Green Dreams. He is also the winner of the 1996 Lowell Thomas Society of Travel Award.

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