Mr. Fulton was the custodian at my elementary school. Mr. Fulton wore overalls and heavy work boots. If we heard heavy work boots echoing throughout the hallways, we would instinctively think, That must be Mr. Fulton. Mr. Fulton had a yellow bucket and a white mop. The bucket had wheels that creaked noisily when Mr. Fulton pushed the bucket down the hallways. If someone spilled milk on the cafeteria floor, Mr. Fulton would materialize from wherever and mop the floor with the white mop. Mr. Fulton was good at mopping the floor quickly. Mr. Fulton wrung the white mop into the yellow bucket and then put a sign where he’d mopped. CAUTION: WET FLOOR, Mr. Fulton’s sign read.
“Slow down, Buster Brown!” Mr. Fulton would say, if we were running through the halls.
“That all for you?” Mr. Fulton would say, when we carried our lunch trays past him.
“Where’s the fire at?” Mr. Fulton would say, at the end of the school day, when we pushed through the front doors, eager to escape school and head home, where we would invariably forget about Mr. Fulton altogether. Unlike our teachers, say Mrs. Reese or Ms. Winkel or Ms. Katz, Mr. Fulton wasn’t the kind of person we thought about at home. The only time we thought about Mr. Fulton was when we heard him in the hallway, or when he appeared with his bucket and mop, and then we’d think, There’s Mr. Fulton.
Mr. Fulton smoked cigarettes outside the cafeteria loading dock. If we waved to Mr. Fulton while he was smoking cigarettes outside the cafeteria loading dock, Mr. Fulton would not wave back. Mr. Fulton did not smile. Each year, there was a picture of Mr. Fulton not smiling in the yearbook. CUSTODIAN, it said above Mr. Fulton’s picture. Mr. Fulton mowed the school grounds with a green tractor that had enormous black tires. If Mr. Fulton was mowing the school grounds with the green tractor, our teachers would sometimes close the windows until Mr. Fulton had stopped mowing the school grounds, and then they would open the windows again.
One rainy day, we arrived at school to see Mr. Fulton standing in the parking lot, which had flooded overnight. Brown water rose to Mr. Fulton’s knees. Rain fell on Mr. Fulton’s overalls. Mr. Fulton held the white mop in his hands, the white part visible.
“You kids go on home,” Mr. Fulton said. “No school today.”
We watched as Mr. Fulton thrust the mop into the floodwater and moved it about, invisibly, beneath the brown water. Was Mr. Fulton really going to mop up all the floodwater? We watched him for a few moments, our hearts beating in our ears, and then we turned to leave, a free day off from school before us, and we ran home not thinking or wondering or imagining what life was like for Mr. Fulton.