It took Frank a year to migrate from Czechoslovakia to Pittsburgh and after he got there, he didn't know if he wanted to stay. He missed the green hills and the family farm. He missed the healing smell of earth from home, but there was nothing to do there but farm.
Within a month he was working night shift in the steel mills, emersed in clanging noise and glaring light.
"They bring stuff in. They melt. They send stuff out. For what for? Dumb stupid."
On the way home one morning, he walked into a hospital and asked for a job. The woman in the employment office asked him what he did on his last job.
"Melt big pot iron."
She figured he was just the man to operate the incinerator. She led Frank to the building superintendent's office, down a long basement passage lined with steam-pipes.
Mr. Cousins, the building superintendent--a big man, led the way to the
incinerator. He told Frank when to build the fire high and when to let
it get low, according to the schedule of the cleaners. He told him what
time to get there in the morning and what time
"When the fire's the hottest, throw in the red bags. That's contaminated stuff from the O.R."
"Con what stuff?"
"Never mind. The red bags. Throw it in the hottest flame. It's got disease in it. Disease. Germs."
"Disease germs. Yes."
Before he left, Mr. Cousins told Frank he was in charge of the fire room and everything in it. He was to keep it clean.
Frank stood just inside the door of the small room. "Disease germs." There were no windows and just one crusty light bulb clinging to a cord hanging from a ceiling lost in darkness. The four corners were rounded with dirt or shadows. Sitting in a pit and protruding half way across the room toward him was the incinerator. It looked like nothing compared to the blast furnaces at the steel mill. He looked down at its mouth. He looked up at the chimney disappearing through the ceiling. "Disease germs."
The two side walls were lined with about a dozen fifty-five gallon drums filled with litter. Frank stepped into the room and then turned about as a cart rumbled down the corridor. A large porter appeared in the door. "You the burner man?"
"Here's some more trash for you." The man pointed to the drum on the cart, leaned against the hall wall and took out his cigarettes.
"Put it here," said Frank, pointing to a spot in front of the furnace mouth.
The porter found himself doing it.
"Do no smoke here. Go some place other."
Frank began his job.
From the beginning, Frank liked the idea that he was destroying germs. To destroy disease was good. It made him feel important. The room was important, too, for that was the place to which the sickness was brought to be destroyed. He destroyed drum after drum of litter. He built the flames high. The heat felt good, healing like the sun and the hot summer air.
Frank decided the walls needed cleaning. He walked up the long corridor to the central basement area. Off the narrow hallway was the freight elevator, the laundry chute room, and a small room filled with candy and cigarette machines. It was filled with porters and housekeepers.
Frank looked no further. He saw what he wanted. Just inside the door sat a bucket of water with a mop. He picked it up, scowled at the loafers, and headed back down the corridor.
"Hey, man. Where you going with my mop?"
"You no use. You laugh and play."
"Man, I want that bucket."
Frank stopped and looked up at the big man. He had never seen a black man before coming to America. He had never seen one up close. He wondered why some whites didn't like them. He looked closely to see what was so bad. The big fellow shifted his weight back and forth and grinned at the little man peering at him.
"Whatsa matter, man?" he giggled a little. "Whad you looking at? All I wants my bucket."
Frank peered up at him. "What your job is?"
"I'ma cleaning man."
"You clean walls?"
"Well, yeah, man," he laughed. "I clean walls alla time. Nothing I like better than cleaning walls." He slapped his leg. "Man, I could clean walls all day, but I done cleaned 'em all."
Frank grabbed him by the arm and spun around, yanking the man half off his feet.
"What you doing, man? Where you going, now? I want my bucket."
Frank stopped. "You like clean walls? I got dirty walls. I let you clean." He yanked him by the arm again pulling him sideways down the hall behind him.
"Man, I was fooling. I hate cleaning walls. I got a floor to wash. I was fooling."
"I no fooling. You sit in candy box room to wash floor? I got dirty wall. You wash." Frank was small but powerful. It is likely the porter was stronger, but there was something about this little man that defied argument. Frank had made up his mind and that was the end of it. He dragged the protesting man into the incinerator room.
"Man. You don't mean these old walls."
"You clean walls. Now."
"Man. I ain't even got a sponge. All I got's a mop. I come back later."
"You use mop on wall."
The big man tried to open his mouth and then tried to shut it. He picked up the mop, wrung it out, and slapped it against the wall.
Two other porters had followed, at a distance, down the corridor. Now they stood in the door and looked. First, they didn't believe it. They looked at each other; then they looked at the wet figure under the wet mop slopping against the wall. They looked at the little man and then at each other. They laughed. They laughed loud. They shouted "hoo hoo" at each other. They pointed at their wet friend and then they stopped.
Frank stood in front of them, staring at them, eyes like slits of granite. "Dump cans in fire." He pointed to the last two cans. They both moved at the same time. As they were dumping the cans, their friend began to laugh at them. The three of them looked at each other and laughed.
"Man. You want this place clean. We gonna get it so clean you never see nothing like it."
"Man, go get some buckets and sponges."
"Get that mop off the wall. You gonna streak it up and never get it clean."
"Clean that floor."
Feet ran up the hall and feet ran down the hall. The three of them were working, two on the walls and one on the floor. A few of their friends came down to see what was going on. The enthusiasm was catching and soon there were eight porters cleaning the room. They got ladders and cleaned the ceiling, probably for the first time ever. They scrubbed the pit, the walls, the floor until the incinerator room was the cleanest place in the hospital. They even cleaned the light bulb. They laughed and sang and Frank decided they were crazy.
In the weeks that followed, the walls were painted white by two painters who were supposed to be painting the central sterile room. A carpenter built Frank a platform in front of the disease mouth for a better angle for dumping. Then he built drum racks along the walls.
Frank used the racks for the red bags, the disease, the sickness germs. Frank would build the fire higher and higher until the heat would drive him back. Then he would go to the rack. He would lift down a drum of red bags and feed it to the inferno. Somehow, the heat never drove him back when he was dumping the disease into the mouth. It was why he was there. The bags would disappear into the red flames and be gone. And Frank would stand and watch, and the heat would dry the sweat from his clothes and his body. He felt clean.
The corridor that went down past the incinerator room led on to a rarely used exit that opened into an alley that separated the hospital from the Catholic Church. One day, Frank poked his head out of his door and almost bumped into the priest hurrying up the hall. The two men knew each other but did not speak, so brief was the time they faced each other. Besides, they were both there on business. Frank watched the black robe as it moved up the hall.
Frank turned back to the flames and the feeding of the hungry mouth. At the same time that he wondered why the Father was there, he knew. He was there to save a soul. He was there to clean a soul of its sins. It was Frank's job to destroy disease germs of the body. Frank threw in a drum of litter and grabbed another and dumped it. The flames reached higher. Two more drums and the flames pushed him back. He heaved a drum of red bags onto the platform and fed it to the inferno. The fire rapidly absorbed the red bags as the disease germs disappeared into the heat that licked his face and chest and arms.
Frank gradually became known as a character to the others in the hospital. First of all, his dialect was so thick it was difficult to know what he was saying. Secondly, he was a loner. He kept to himself and questioned any friendly overtures. Thirdly, Frank's demeanor made him stand out and after a few years near the flames, his skin developed a leathery finish. His hair became coarse in appearance due to the constant heat and drying. It stood almost straight up on his head. His eyes were like walls.
But most of all, Frank's habits caused questions and comments. He would continue to stand on the platform in front of the incinerator when the heat bloomed out in waves, and in spite of the danger of an occasional ether bottle exploding, he would lean slightly forward with his arms extended out. And if any one ventured into the room when Frank was on the platform, they quickly knew they had committed a great wrong. The cleaners began to operate according to Frank's schedule. As the years passed, the unwritten policy became tradition.
Frank was not an incinerator operator. His job was to burn disease, the tool of the devil. He was the priest of the fire room. He worked seven days a week and accepted no vacation. He took off only for confession and mass on Sundays and holy days, and for eleven years, he did not miss a day's work. He was never sick. He had no complaints. He did his job, and management considered him a perfect, if strange, employee.
Then one morning in March, the first real obstacle in the path of Frank's work occurred. He was scheduled for an annual physical checkup, waste of time. He sat in the employee health office with his shirt off.
The doctor listened with the funny ear plugs. He stuck the end of the thing on Frank's chest and then on his back and then on the chest again. "Deep breath." The doctor said it again. "Take a deep breath."
Frank took a giant breath and blew it out quickly. "I go now?"
The doctor tap tapped at the knees and then looked closely at the chest. He looked in the ears and the nose, but always, he came back to the chest. "Lie down on the table."
Frank did, starring at the ceiling.
The doctor ran his fingers over the skin in the center of the chest under the gray mat of coarse hair. The doctor pressed the skin. He moved it back and forth over the breast bone.
Frank watched the doctor as he squinted and bent over. "I go now?"
"Not yet." The doctor straightened up and walked across the room to talk to the nurse. She used the phone and in a few minutes another doctor appeared and he, too, peered at Frank's chest.
The two doctors talked and agreed. "Frank, we're going to admit you as a patient."
"What you talk about?"
"You have a skin cancer. No doubt about it."
"Is that disease?"
"Well, yes it is."
"Is no possible. Does priest get soul black from sin? Is no can be." Frank got off the table, put on his shirt, and left as the two doctors tried to explain that they would have to run some tests and maybe it wasn't malignant after all.
"I got work." He stalked back to the fire room, but hadn't been there long when the doctor came in with Mr. Cousins.
"Frank," said Mr. Cousins, "you come with me."
"Who burn trash?"
"Never mind, Come with me."
"Who burn trash?"
"If you don't come, I'm going to fire you."
"Who burn trash?"
"Who'll damn well burn it if I fire you?"
"I'm no sick."
Mr. Cousins grabbed him by the arm. "I'll tell you when you're sick and when you're not." With the doctor on one arm and Mr. Cousins on the other, they moved up the hall like it was the last mile.
"I'm no sick," Frank kept repeating.
They marched to a room already reserved for him on the third floor.
The next morning, they wheeled Frank into surgery and removed a small skin cancer from his chest.
"It's a good thing we caught it when we did," the doctor told him. "Tomorrow morning, we'll let you go home. In a week you can come back to work. Maybe you better not get too close to the flames. It's dried out your skin."
Frank looked at the doctor and the doctor left.
"Dumb stupid doctor. What he know? I can no be sick ever." But he felt the bandages on his chest and knew they had taken him to the operating room, to the place where the red bags came from. There was a red bag down there now with his disease germs in it.
Frank had never had a dream. He had wondered what people were talking about when they talked about their dreams. They were crazy. When he went to bed, he slept until he woke up and then he knew it was time to get up. This time, however, his body slept but his mind did not, and things happened in his head:
In the center of a chancel on a three-legged
stool sat a
The priest's face was in darkness and could
And Frank saw his own face was the priest's.
Frank woke up shouting against the music and the light. When he saw only the nurse in the room, he knew there was something wrong in his head. The nurse tried to give him a sedative, but he knocked the little yellow pills out of her hand. She kept her distance then. They brought him a light lunch. He let it sit. He wouldn't talk. The fire had not destroyed the disease.
How could be? Frank knew what he had to do. He had job to do. The fire had punished him for doing half job.
Frank was waiting for him when the doctor made his rounds. "You let me have clothes now."
The doctor fumbled and stooped to pick up his stethoscope. "How do you feel, Frank?"
"I go now. Bring clothes."
The doctor laughed a little. His left eyelid was twitching.
"Bring clothes now."
The doctor picked up his stethoscope again and sat on a chair. Frank stood over him.
"Bring clothes now."
"Well, Frank, are you sure you're okay?"
"I go fire room now."
"Well, Miss Jones," the doctor said to the nurse, "what do you say we let him go. He looks pretty good to me."
Frank hurried down to the fire room. He chased out the porter who had been doing the burning. He built the fire higher and threw in red bag after red bag. One of them was the bag with his disease germs. The flames licked out the mouth. Frank stood across the room, watching. Slowly, he mounted the platform. He dropped in the last bag. He leaned forward. It disappeared in the flames. Frank leaned into the flames to see if disease germs could be seen separate from the flames.
He could hear the disease germs searing. The roar of the flames grew louder than ever before. The light of the fire was blinding light. The flames were singing. Their chanting became loud and high pitched, faster and higher, and even so, he could hear the disease germs screaming above the flames and everything blended and there was harmony and it was right. Priest give soul to Church so Church can destroy diseases of the soul. What you give the fire chancel so for the disease of the body be destroyed?
Frank stepped across the alter. Beautiful music arose as a terrible heat destroyed all the disease germs of his body, and everything was right.
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