The Locker

By William Wetherall

A sales director, his secretary, and the janitor

Began 1993, last revised 2006-12-17 (1,320 words)

The Locker

By William Wetherall

The janitor was always somewhere in the building when the sales director got there in the morning. He could usually tell what floor she was on by the elevator lights. He could also hear her banging the mop cart from office to office, collecting the trash and sweeping, top floor to ground floor, changing garbage cans.

So he generally knew, when his secretary arrived, shortly after he did, how much time they would have. Only once had the janitor startled them by suddenly appearing around the row of cabinets that partly divided their space from the rest of the office bay.

Fortunately, then, they had not been doing anything except sitting there and talking. He, or more likely she, had always heard something that alerted them to the janitor's approach, and they would be composed and busy with documents by the time she poked her head around the cabinets and said good morning.

He never failed to greet her and offer her a cup coffee or tea. She always made some remark about how cold or warm the morning was and declined anything to drink. He knew she had her own tea paraphernalia in the staff kitchen. He didn't think she was shy or unfriendly. Possibly she was under the spell of a non-fraternization clause in her contract with the custodial service.

One morning though, finding him alone, the secretary for some reason not there, the janitor surprised him and said yes.

"You're wondering why I'm suddenly so sociable?" she said, smiling at him.

"Not really. I've always gotten the impression you would like some company around here."

"You've been watching me?"

"Listening to you more than watching."

"I'm that noisy?"

"No, no. Just that you don't talk much. And I'll bet you've been doing a lot of both, watching and listening, right?"

"It's a small building."

"And smelling the coffee, I'll bet."

"That, too," she said. "I love the fragrance but can't stand the taste."

"Some tea, then?"


"Red or green?"

"Make it red. I always have green."

"I've noticed."

"Do you filter the tea too?"

He laughed. "No. Just the coffee."

"You make it look like a mysterious rite."

"It is. Only a few people can do it well."

He dropped a tea bag in a cup he had filled with hot water.

"No lemons or milk but there's sugar," he said.

"I'll take it just the way it is," she said, her voice relaxed, her diction informal. They did, after all, work in the same building, and had known each other, in a manner of speaking, for several years.

He set a saucer and then the cup on the secretary's desk, which was close to his, and bid her to sit. Then he dropped into his executive chair, took from his desk the cup of coffee he had already made for himself, and swiveled to face her.

Which offices were hardest to clean? Whose desks were the neatest, the sloppiest? What did people leave in toilets and waste bins. What did she think of the building's condition? When he ran out of questions, they just sat there, he nursing his coffee, she sipping her tea, he watching her as she pressed her back into the secretary's cushioned chair and swept the office with a smile.

"What time do you have to get up?" he said, breaking the silence.

"Four," she said, meeting his eyes.

"You must live quite a ways away."

"A bit."

"What were you doing before this?"

"Before this?"

"This isn't a post-retirement job?"

"Oh, no. This is all I've ever done. I started when I was sixteen."

He studied her face, lined with years beyond count.

"That couldn't have been too long ago."

She returned his smile.

"Long enough to forget all the places I've worked."

"You moved around a lot?"

"Every time I was ditched."

"By a guy?"

"Do I look like a woman who likes girls?"

Her smile broadened as she watched his face flush.

"Well, a woman as beautiful as you couldn't have been ditched too often."

She laughed and said, "I'm a cleaning girl. Men see cleaning girls as toys, not wives."

"My wife was once a hotel maid."

"And you're still with her?"

"Yes and no."

Again they fell silent. He nursed his coffee and waited for her to continue the line of questions, but she just sat there sipping her tea while gazing around the office. His secretary thought she might be in her late sixties, though she looked much younger. He imagined what she had looked like in her thirties. She had probably been more beautiful than his secretary.

Then a gaggle of giggles and clacks of heels, the first wave of clerks off the elevator, broke the lull in their conversation.

The woman quickly placed her cup on the saucer and reached into a pocket of her apron.

"Happy Valentine's Day," she said, giving the man a key.

It was chained to a white plastic tag with a black 43 on one side and Yotsuya JR on the other.

"Just a small token of my appreciation," she said as she stood to leave.

Several people had come into the office and gone to their desks. Those who turned to greet the sales director noticed that the janitor had been sitting at his secretary's desk.

"Thank you," he said, also standing.

"Have a good day," she said.

A smile floated across her face as she turned and walked away.

With fifteen minutes left on his lunch break, the sales director excused himself from the company of the coworkers he had dined with and walked to the station. All morning he had wondered what kind of chocolate he would find in locker 43. Or maybe there would be a bottle of fruit-flavored medicinal sake. She was of the generation that was buying most of the production, he had read in some report.

The locker, large enough for a small suitcase, produced only a small, thin, stiff envelope. Something told him not to open it in the station so he crossed the street to the park. The flap had just been tucked inside, not sealed with paste or tape. He pulled out three photographs, all of him and his secretary, each taken on a different day judging from their clothes.

Why hadn't they heard her? Or at least the camera? How many more had she taken? Was this why his secretary hadn't come in that morning? Or called or answered his calls?

What did the woman want? There had been no note in the envelope. No writing on it either, nor on the photographs, which appeared to have been printed from digital images. Did people her age have computers? Did she do things like email? She could easily have found out staff and even client addresses from documents in the trash. He imagined her sending attachments to everyone in the office, in the world.

The envelope and photographs would be covered with his fingerprints. Hers might also be on them. He no longer had the key, but unless someone had taken the locker, it might still yield some evidence that police could trace to her.

But no, he could not do that. She couldn't have been making much more than minimum wage. Could she have even afforded a digital camera and printer? Maybe all she wanted was a little spending money. Well, he could handle that.

He took out his wallet, slipped a 10,000 yen note in the envelope, and returned to the station. The locker was still available. He put the envelope inside, closed the door, dropped a coin in the slot, and took the key.

The next morning he would ask her, as always, if she would like some tea. By then he would think of a way to pass her the key.