Tiles by Frank George
Most people didn’t believe that Gary Bisbee could think, but he could; he just never talked about what he was thinking. He went about silently at his work. He pushed the large dustbin and held his broom over his shoulder. He didn’t say hello to anyone. Back home, the number 36 was written on a pad beside his bed. It was the number of days he’d gone without talking. It was better to just shut up.
Gary had been thinking a great deal about faces for several days. He saw all the usual ones throughout the day. Students, professors, general staff. He didn’t seem to recognize any of them. He could only see the boy’s face and he couldn’t forget it. It was the eyes, Gary concluded. It was seeing a soul stare down death and realize it was stuck; that was it. The boy’s helpless stare was what occupied Gary’s thoughts, because he knew that it could cross anybody’s face.
He didn’t say anything as he rolled the bin down the long, fluorescent-lit hallway towards the lavatory. He glanced to the side of the bathroom door, but no sign hung to permit or deny entrance. It’d been a year since he’d taken them down. He still looked, though, out of habit. Gary couldn’t get used to the thought of it not mattering any more. He shook his head silently and walked into the bathroom.
He let the dustbin come to a stop in front of the sinks. Gary inched down to the furthest stall. The bathroom smelled of lemon and pine, but it was unpleasantly laced with chemicals and it burned his eyes. He closed the stall door behind him and stepped up to the toilet, looking down at his boots. He thought about the face again. He shuddered. Whether from the thought or from relief, he wasn’t sure. Gary wished he knew who the boy was. Everyone had the same name; Ignorant, and then a quick jolt to death. Gary thought of that word. Was he ignorant? He couldn’t be sure, but he felt like he wasn’t. But what was the opposite of ignorant, he asked himself. Gary couldn’t think of the word. Maybe he was after all.
Zipping the fly of his overalls, he straightened his stiff back. His eyes lifted, and a cold shiver fell over him as they fell on the tile. It stared at him and condemned him. Gary shut his eyes and fought the urge to vomit. He opened them again. It was black and empty. The white bathroom tile had always felt empty to him, but not like the black tile. It was like a void pupil surrounded by white. He thought of the boy’s eyes, staring at him through the chilled winter air, bulging and twitching from the hanging. Gary thought hard on the eyes and knew what he’d suspected was true. The Ignorant had looked exactly at him that day, silently naming Gary as the pole to which he’d be chained for slaughter. He was the boy’s anchor, and Gary had stared back into his eyes until they’d stopped twitching. In the stall’s secrecy, the tile eye cut into Gary. A faint scream filled his ears, but it may have only been his mind; he heard so much inside.
His hand trembling, Gary reached out and let his fingertips fall on the tile’s cool face. He feared it would be hot like damnation, but it was indifferently icy, and that was somehow worse than hellfire. Gary looked at the tile’s edges. There was too much grout in the grooves. He’d been too shaken by the hanging to do the job well.
Gary rubbed the grout gently and remembered the harsh sound of his chisel, piercing in the silence, panging as he’d struck against the porcelain. He remembered working around the square of tile carefully until it fell from its place into Gary’s waiting hand. Now, the black tile in its place was unforgettable. That was the intent. No one remembered the boy, but they remembered the Ignorance, and the tile reminded them. A shiver ran over Gary’s body and he walked out of the stall, returning to the sink. The eye was left staring blankly at nothing. With a shrill screech, he turned on the faucet. If he had an imagination, he might have seen blood pour into the sink. He didn’t, though. He only thought on the idea for a moment before letting it pass on.
Gary’s watch read five-till-five as he made his way through the hall back to the janitor’s closet. With the dustbin and broom locked safely inside, he clocked out and set off for home. The signpost of his street bore a sign declaring curfew to be set at 8:30 P.M. by the war department. He glanced down the pole’s length and stared at a poster declaring that the war would be won by Revolution Day. Gary walked on through the twilight until he came to his home.
The house was dark and empty. Gary felt deep in his pocket for a long cord wound around a small key. He unraveled the course, brown twine and laid the key on his night stand with a loud crack. Finding a pencil, Gary erased the 6 and wrote a 7 on the pad. The room was full of shadows and he drew the curtain over his window, blocking out the darkening street. He picked up the key and unlocked the night stand drawer. His hand searched past a few books and other junk. Under a folded paper, he felt the course fabric of a rag and took it out. He looked at the folded cloth for a few minutes, its white threads stained with grease and dirt. With a deep breath, Gary stuffed it into his pocket.
Down the hallway, he opened the closet beside the front door and searched around in the dark for his tool belt. It was stuffed beneath a bundled coat on the ground. Walking down through the kitchen and on, he flicked the bathroom light switch. Bright white tiles gleamed beneath the light, framed by a grid of black grout. Gary shuddered and paused, trying to drive out the Ignorant’s eyes from his mind. The house was cold and he coughed painfully. Scanning around the bathroom, he saw its only window. It stood above the bath tub and Gary quickly drew the tub’s curtain to close out the night.
Gary knelt down, his knees aching as they hit the floor, and pulled a small, dirty tub from the sink cabinet. He pried its lid off with a chisel from his belt, stirred the grout with a putty knife, and went to work. With the chisel and a small hammer, he began to dig into a square of tile just above the floorboard, hidden in the cupboard’s shadow. Shards of porcelain and dust shot off onto the floor as he chipped it away without thought. Taking the knife, he spread grout over the fresh wound gouged into the wall and smoothed it like a salve. Gary set the knife down. He coughed again, a pain digging into his chest. Beads of sweat hung on his ruddy forehead and he reached into his pocket, clutching at the rag. He wiped it gently across his face and unfolded it. His hand trembled nervously as he took the piece of tile from the rag and pressed it into the wall. With the rag, he rubbed away the excess grout and made sure it was smooth and clean.
Slowly, his knees stiff, he slid over and sat on the bath tub’s edge. Gary stared down at the tile. The message had not faded since he’d chiseled it from the school bathroom. The dark ink was vibrant against the white tile. He read it again and he thought of the boy and the silvery eyes. For the first time, he saw not just fear, but sadness in the eyes, as well. Gary’s shoulders sagged and he hung his head in his calloused hands. A dry, heaving sob issued from his parted lips. Through a rippling tear, he stared up at the tile.
It was Latin. Gary heard a professor say so after the execution. Gary didn’t know Latin and he didn’t care about what it meant. It got the boy killed, so it must have meant something important. Gary wiped his hands absentmindedly. He saw the boy, swinging in the University Quad in front of the student body, flanked by the college deans. He remembered the shouting and curses of the crowd, hurled bitterly at the criminal. Before the boy fell from the gallows, Gary had prayed for a clean break. It was not answered. The crowd had watched him dangle and jerk violently.
As Gary sat silently, his heaving subsided and he wished again that he could know the boy’s name. He had a feeling he might know, but couldn’t be sure. Gary took out a pen from his tool belt and wrote Greyson Mills beneath the words. The name seemed to fit with a vague memory. Gary thought he’d passed the boy once in the hall, a long time before. He was probably just imagining it, but at the very least, it was a thought.