Temptation of the Church Janitor – Jesse Hilson
October 6, 2023
The floor is only real when he mops it. Coffee hour is one hour of the week only real when parishioners feel it. He’s here when they’re not. It’s not absence it’s a presence that comes when you are the only one here, vacuuming carpets, dusting ceiling corners of cobwebs with a long feather duster on the end of a pole. He lemon pledges pews and picks up cheerios from button-indentations in the green velvet cushions in the pews in that one place in the sanctuary where people must be bringing their infants. (He doesn’t go to church services.) Lego mosaics buried in couches in an alcove where other kids are sent. Someone said there was a spider’s nest in the sound system closet but he hasn’t been able to find it. He’s in massive buildings alone oftener than the grains in the hourglass are taken down by gravity. He looks up at the stained glass windows and sees a clear sun-graph that says he will die some day. He was married once. There’s no women anymore except the naked women swimming through the murky water in his head striking lustful positions. Their skin below the surface is pale green against abyssal black. That sexuality is a form of suffering, ancient thinkers knew but modern livers of present life can’t acknowledge.
A form by which Venus may cease to be vulgar. He discovered that landscape of the breasts and thorax which for some mysterious reason, connected, perhaps with our earliest physical needs. The Aphrodite of desire was, as we have seen, a Syrian divinity. The interference of her innumerable successors…a symbol, or trade-mark, of beauty. The planes of her body are so large and calm that at first we do not realize the number of angles through which they pass. A row of dancers with arms on each other’s shoulders, front to back, a motive still common in Greek choreography. She had passed from religion to entertainment, from entertainment to decoration: and then she had disappeared. “And since idolatry is prohibited by our faith there can be no doubt from whence these disasters arise.” He cannot possibly have seen. They have no firm belief in the physical world. Naive and elaborate yearning for another world. He had no sooner found the password than all could enter at the same door, and one or two may have pushed past him. Titian has even broken the line of the arm by a cast of crimson drapery exactly where it would have been broken by time. It was Leonardo who had advised the painter to penetrate the secrets of expression by looking at the faces of women in the mysterious illumination of twilight. The human body is not the basis of these rhythms, but their victim. Her legs alone are six heads long. Mille peintres sont morts, said Diderot, sans avoir senti la chair. The face must be subordinate, but it must not go by default, for inevitably it will color our response to the body. The bottom is a baroque form. One false note and we should be embarrassingly back in the world of sin. The patient carnality of the life class. During the 1870’s, the impressionists were at pains to demonstrate that the outline does not exist.
There aren’t natural lines around things we see in nature. We draw lines around the images in our heads of things we see in nature. He looks at his phone while cleaning at the church and goes on the browser to check some nagging piece of trivia — a cast member from a British show on IMDb — when he sees with paralyzing chagrin that it had loaded the website Boob Goddess on the church’s wifi which was the last website he’d been viewing at home. He closes the tab on Boob Goddess so fast, faster than God or God’s server can see, hopefully. It upsets him for weeks. Subtracting the head of Boob Goddess. Decapitating photo-frames, rectangles, DD breasts being independent from heads. Unsexy gestalt of the whole body holistic in the segmented eye of the insect-man. “I don’t like watching her head move and look around herself as she releases herself from her bra,” insect-man says about baboon-faced woman. Beastly movement. The python unhinging its jaw and spending hours to inhale the goat.
Kissing her elbow is all that’s allowed. Elbows are chinks in the sexual armor. Flexors where the wavelengths of energy change. Joints and sockets the pathway in to libidinal being. Certain postures open portals. The woman is an articulated key twisting in the lock. Orgasm led his once-gf A.A. to disappear down a tunnel of gradually disintegrating verbal articulacy: “I’m cumming…cumming…umming…uming…
He is a critic of the architecture of perception. Object noticer. He sees prism threads of skepticism in everything, spiderwebs that pivot all morning and twinkle according to their angle to the sun’s first three hours of progress wheeling from Northeast to Southeast before he goes to work cleaning the church. ROYGBIV building blocks of all light reflecting off individual pubic hairs of a woman laced by morning sun shafts through the eastern window, he remembers. Listening for ghosts in empty churches yields shatter-echoes of natural radar bouncing off his body, the focal point of the ectoplasmic antenna-dish. ESP being a way to get around being stuck at the dead end of aestheticism because sixth senses are “extra-aesthetic.” “No equation to explain the division of the senses,” said Patti Smith. Sight sound touch taste hearing, constructions in language-space made by ancient scholastic philosophers who “hadn’t seen everything yet.” Every year we develop new eyes to see around new conceptual corners Platonic scientists didn’t map. Dead eye stalks unused. One day tastebuds and eardrums will be vestigial as dragon’s wings.
Vacuum the steps down to the kirk where people sift through cairns of junk. Paperback novels, racks of clothes and shoes, VHS tapes with no labels but undoubtedly containing the safe oases of 80s/90s sitcoms, discarded kid’s plastic toy universes. To raise money for the church. Donations. There is a whole pile of Updike someone got rid of, books with the front covers ripped off. The kirk staff has no idea what sexy magma is in the books. Updike according to one critic had been a master at describing the “penile sensorium.” And a vivid describer of women’s bodies. The church janitor buys them all while the volunteer is still manning the register. Updike’s Couples has in it a bookmark which was a black-and-white movie still of Virginia Mayo from 1949. Platinum blonde hair swept back, glaring at James Cagney. Hot. He puts the books on a counter in the kitchen off the fellowship hall and starts picking up every folding chair in the massive room to put them on the tables to get ready for sweeping and mopping. There’s a whole system to it all that he’s perfected over time, something ritualistic (Updike might have cringed at that). The pushbroom moves in large boustrophedon patterns across the checkered floor. Jonquil. Jester. Harlequin. Some word for the checkered pattern. The pushbroom is wider than the squares on the floor so visually, over months of sweeping the floor, they don’t help to guide it. You get so that you can memorize every ripple in the tiles, every spot where some bit of ancient chewing gum won’t ever come up no matter what tool you use to scrape it. He pushes the broom around the room in maze-like patterns with the devil itself following inches, centimeters, behind him like a Tour de France cyclist drafting off him. He listens to an audiobook of the Screwtape Letters and feels deep fear and cries invisibly.
He’s mentally ill and probably will end up some kind of religious nut in his 50s and 60s if he survives. In the psych hospital the first time they brought him into a board room where he sat on one end of the table and on the other side, as if he was at a job interview, was his “care team” including the psychiatrist in an aging greaser’s leather jacket. The psychiatrist had a wop last name. A nurse read out the diagnosis like a lead juror reading a sentence in a courtroom. “Bipolar 1 with psychotic features. Religious obsession, intrusive thoughts.” It was like the religious thing was news to him. He hadn’t slept in four days. He never saw the greaser psychiatrist again but the guy had started him on atypical antipsychotics. He took them and that night in his sleep, first night in the psych ward, he slept and dreamt of Stephen Colbert in Hawaii. The comedian was speaking down a long chain of Colberts, passing words off to successive degrees of other versions of himself like that drowning girl in Nabokov’s Ada seeing that death was like passing a message down an infinite row of her selves. The nurses checked on you every fifteen minutes with a flashlight and that became a part of the series. In the morning they helped his name get up out of bed and took vitals.
He sweeps and mops the floor with a bucket of steaming hot water with lemon-scented pine sol (pine soul) and hopes the Trustee doesn’t come to the church to check on him. That guy is frightening because he’s a boss. The devil invisibly lingers centimeters behind him, she grinds on him in lascivious movements. It takes ages. After he’s done with the fellowship hall he sweeps and mops the kirk hallway. He cuts corners, and after doing so he accuses himself of sinning in a tsunami of scrupulosity.
After work he watches God watch him throwing the Updike novels in a dumpster. He crawls into his car and then off to McDonald’s drive thru where he trembles in the crosshairs of the young woman’s forbidding stare as she hands him his coffee and fries.
Spoken to A.A., the church janitor’s long gone ex-girlfriend: “You suck life force away from me, and I suck your beauty away from you. You were beautiful when I met you but when we were done with each other you looked terrible. And I think, in spite of my craziness, that this loss of your beauty was objective. When time is a wingman all women end up uglier. It’s the unidirectional pattern of time.”
The church janitor can put quotes around it to make it not him. Quotation is a disavowal. A choral roman à clef, an array of water glasses whose rims are rubbed to make a melodic line. Fictional characters have mouthpieces which are all tossed-off aspects of mind, centrifugally spun off from some center mass. Every ghost has a smartphone. Some hook within the voice leads him. While he vacuums he listens to podcasts and forms the most unearthly judgments about the guest’s voices. He can hear the self-satisfaction call out like a egoist’s ringtone.
“You don’t want me to sense you. This is the last thing you want. It is not pleasure. Neither of us would be pleased. Dumb sense comes before appreciation, is no guarantor of it following after. I can appreciate an effortlessly beautiful older woman. In her beauty’s fading is the trajectory of nature summoning forth its own preservative. Power is the regal profile on currency returning unspent. Was it torture to be given five unsophisticated senses with which to observe womanhood floating by in various attitudes of damnation. The senses are ranked according to the likelihood of the perception disrupters intervening exactly midpoint between me and every other human being. I avoid public places. If I ever saw a true visage I would die. If I ever heard a true voice my insanity would multiply like the petals of the dahlia in bloom.”
This is another version of him saying something awful. It made it one foot out of his mouth before he snatched it out of the air like the string tied to an escaping balloon and stuffed it back into his mouth. Publication means something so meager in this marketplace of cheap ideas. Someday he will charge something for this gold dust but for now it is as free as ashes tossed out from the crematorium on the weekends. He did not mean the sexist valuation of observing women’s beauty to be anything other than a self-excoriation. There’s a deepfake of the church janitor describing a woman’s curvature, outline, profile, declivity of belly passing off a clear line to hip only seeable by nature. It’s in quotes which is how it is signified that it’s not him. Ventriloquism of the sexist puppet master making him do things, speak into the microphone, leer at women passing on the sidewalk in Armory Square in Syracuse NY.
“I can’t abide your coarse offbeat decadence. I want to occasionally go higher, into an Aristotelian vacationland of happiness. I want to be libidinally cut off. It’s funny that so much of it is marked by words and language and trickery. The keyword which would unlock everything is evasive to me. Maybe it’s your name.”
This world is a foreign object lodged in your eyeball, a molecular system of dust. The dust contains nudity patterns within it, as well as money, food, women’s laughter, toxins of sensation. The biggest component of the dust, the substance binding it all together, is the word “I.” A pleasure-purgation must take place before you can get rid of the foreign object of the world, which divides you from God. The church janitor is exhilarated tinkering with this theory as he vacuums up the old black soot from the fireplace inside the manse where the pastor is moving in a month. The manse is not the church but the building next to the church and it seems to have acres of carpets to vacuum. He has not emptied the bag inside the vacuum cleaner for around nine months of vacuuming the church and manse. The bag is like a block of cement by now: dust and dirt and particles shed by archaic carpeting compressed into a solid mass.