During the two years we lived on campus in the tiny house across the delivery drive from the back of the industrial kitchen serving up three meals a day for the students and resident staff of Washington College Academy, and where I survived the seventh and eighth grades, and besides all the assortment of jobs I had to help pay for my tuition, I had only one cash paying job. I swept and mopped the floor for a dance studio.
Did I mention the studio was haunted?
The main building on campus, both for administration and classes, sat nestled into a slope at the near center of campus, one of the oldest buildings and certainly seemed that way. Added onto over the years, the administration building had a mix of wood, plaster, red brick, and concrete composing it’s classic 1920’s style façade, with a center stairwell, wigs like a capitol, full finished functional basement filling out three floors worth of offices, classrooms, a massive auditorium, and beneath the auditorium, a gymnasium now used for storage up on the suspended tack that ran around the circumference of the space, and beneath that a former basketball court and locker rooms now utilized as a temporary dance studio between studios.
The gig came about because my sister had begun taking dance lessons in the afternoons in the old gymnasium a couple times a week, and when my Mom heard the owner / operator lady complain a buit about how old, musty, and dusty the place was, she volunteered my services for a modest fee, I believe $10 dollars, to come in once a week after classes and dust mop the entire floor, then mop the floor to half court.
Sounds like a simple job, right? Especially for a kid already doing a lot of industrial kitchen cleanup work, washing dishes for entire student bodies, breaking down weekly food delivery boxes and hauling them down the hill to feed into an incinerator, cleaning the traps around the pool in the new gymnasium building, mowing lawns, trimming back brush in over grown lots with the best bush ax I’ve ever had the pleasure to get blisters from before or since. Except that the gig meant showing up at 7 pm, unlocking the heavy metal door, and descending a dark narrow stairwell into the subterranean floor of the gymnasium, sliding my hand along the wall until I felt / found the metal hatch over the breaker box, flung it open, and flipped the top right block of switches to turn on the overhead lights where they dangled inside protective cages over the all purpose vintage basketball court.
Although 7 pm isn’t particularly late, it is late enough that little outside light enters through the dusty bank of windows up high on the wall inside the gymnasium, a space dug out of the hillside and a good thirty feet down. The track that ran around the gym and just beneath those windows seemed so high up when looking from the gym floor; however it was probably about even with the ground plain outside. And at night, things moved around on the track, sometimes loudly. Sometimes scratching and clicking like rats, possums, or raccoons. Other times heavy footed thumps and clomps like a tri-athlete attempting to break through a pain barrier. Best not to look up, then, right?
There were two locker rooms on the same end of the gym as the stairs I’d entered from, once upon a time gender specific, now the one closest to the stairs in use by the dance students, the other a janitorial closet and otherwise derelict. The dust mop, a yard wide flat plain with a frilled edge like a dead Muppet at one end, the mop bucket, a hose connected to a spigot, a bottle of liquid soap, and a couple mops. There was a tiled square with a tiled lip just inside the doorway, perhaps always intended for janitorial use, or perhaps once upon a time part of a shower. That’s where the mop water would go after I finished. I mention all this with detail because of two things. First, all the janitorial supplies, water, and drain sat within arm’s reach of the open door frame, door long ago removed. Second, no matter how many breakers I flipped, no lights ever came on in that locker room, and I never worked up the courage to step foot inside it. I think if I’d ever lost my grip on a mop handle and it had fallen inside the room farther than I could reach from the doorway, I simply would have gone home.
Except for the time I had just filled the mop bucket when a summer storm knocked the power out, and startled, I knocked the mop handle over and heard it clap against the wood floor. I jumped at the sudden sharp sound, then stood motionless for several minutes hearing the pitch black breathe and sensing it swirl closer from the back of that already India ink mouth of insanity back inside the dead locker room.
I didn’t go home because I feared if I moved my sense of direction would fail me and I would end up running into a stall somewhere in the back of that place and never be seen again, some sort of evil twin to the wardrobe that slipped English kids to Narnia. I’d just read those books during sixth grade and finished the last one not long before taking on the gym cleaning gig. The last one where everyone turns out to have been dead all along. Easy enough to see how a pitch black locker room that hasn’t been used since the fifties might seem like the veritable mouth of hell to an impressionable seventh grader.
I didn’t go home until a particularly bright flash of lightning game me enough after image to run for the stairs, hitting the wall and sliding up it towards the heavy metal door at the top, trying not to think about the looming sillohettes I’d also seen, the ones with the red needle points of light where eyes might’ve been.
I slid up the wall and couldn’t see any sliver of the outside waiting at the top of the pitch black stairwell. There should have been a sliver of the night outside, the late dusk sky, as I always propped the heavy metal door open with half a brick for fear of being locked inside the gym.
I found the door shut fast when I hit it, and initially stubborn to open until my hand found the round tab to squeeze down to disengage the latching mechanism. The brick had somehow been dislodged. Once I got outside I’d been huffing for breath, sweating, and could see the half a brick sitting prim and proper up against the side of the building, just where I always would leave it when locking up after job finished.
And then the lights came on, and with it a sonic blast of the radio from the small Radio Shack single speaker radio I always took with me down there, finding that the volume seemed to help me feel safer, not alone and exposed. I realized I couldn’t just go home, leave all the lights on and that radio blaring; the dance teacher would kill me. I would have to finish the job, I thought, and wanted to cry a little.
Eventually, after catching my breath, I returned downstairs and found just inside the open socket of the doorway to the dark locker room, leaning up against the door frame, stood the mop I’d dropped when the power had gone out.
After staring at the mop for a while, I decided I’d had enough. Not an angry sort of enough, rather, the sort of enough being scared and willfully a victim. I began talking to the place. Like a crazy person, check. “Thank you for picking that up,” I said, as clearly and calmly as I could manage. “I’ll finish this up and be out of your way shortly.” I hurriedly stepped across the open gym floor, sneakers squeaking on the wood I’d recently dust mopped.
And then I noticed the songs playing on the radio weren’t ones I knew, they weren’t Foriegner or Def Leppard or Styx or Quiet Riot or Ratt. Not Van Halen or Rush or Fleetwood Mack or the Police. The songs were older, and similar to the stuff I remembered from all those Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Buster Berkeley movies I’d seen on TBS after my folks first got cable for our little black and white TV set. The dial sat near the left when I wandered over to look, rolled all the way over to the NPR station, vintage classics, commercial free. I let the radio be and got to mopping the gym floor up to half court as per my job description.
After I finished, I wrung out the mop, dumped the water, replaced the gear just inside the doorframe to the perpetually dark locker room, unplugged my radio thrusting the gym into a restless silence, nodded once to the room and said, “Goodnight. Thanks for letting me clean up.” And head for the breaker box at the foot of the stairwell. I closed my eyes, flipped the breakers by memory, and didn’t open my eyes again until I was outside in the cooler air of an evening settling in. I moved the brick with a toe and shoved the metal door until the clasp clicked home, then head down the hill towards home without looking back.
I cleaned that gym for a couple more months without incident, and then the dance class moved their newly opened facilities and I never entered that gym again.
Years later, when Lisa and I went to visit Jonesboro with my parents and my sister Catherine, still just a toddler then, we took a detour and stopped by the Washington College Academy. The place had closed, from what we could tell, though someone appeared to still be maintaining the grounds. The big old wide hipped administration building still stood its ground at the center of campus, and along the base of it we stopped to look at the metal door that lead down into the retired gymnasium I’d once swept and mopped. I remember hanging back as Lisa walked up the slope to get a better look at the sweeping stairwell that lead up to the main doors and foyer of the place. I remember saying something to the effect of hoping all was well for them, not really knowing who them was, but having some sense that if there were ghosts at the school, they would have been back from when the school had been the respectable all girls school my Grandmother had attended, she and her friend Rosemary who I had known as one of the staff of the administrative offices when I’d attended those two years, 1982 – 1984, I believe. If there were ghosts, they must be happy that the embarrassing, corrupted institution the school had become had been put out of its misery, the campus left to fade away with some shred of dignity. The basement gymnasium at last gone quiet now that there were no more footsteps or badly sung hymns from the auditorium upstairs to keep it away and give it headaches.
There’ve been other jobs that put a mop in my hand, other places with strange vibes and intimidating shadows, though none as impactful as my experiences in that particular space, a space I think of when I hear Benny Goodman or Louis Armstrong. A space I wonder might have appreciated my efforts to keep some luster on its ballroom floor, where the young dancers came to swing sometimes in the summer afternoons.