The summer I turned fifteen I got a job as one of four youth janitors at the United Methodist Church in the town where I lived. I wasn’t a Methodist, I wasn’t anything, and I knew I didn’t belong in church, but my friends all went to MYF, the youth group, and I went with them on outings. We saw All the President’s Men at the movies. We went to a place called Toad Hall where we played the Ungame when our counselors were awake, and truth or dare when they were asleep.
When the regular janitor, a church member, left her husband and ran off with another woman, and three of my friends applied to split the job, I applied too and was hired.
Luckily, I got secular jobs…watering plants and trimming ivy outside the building, and buffing the huge linoleum floor in the fellowship hall with a machine I could barely tame. It was a little scary, being in that big building alone, running equipment that ran me. At least when I was outside, trimming ivy in the heat, I could watch the cars drive down the street, hear their radios blaring out the open windows, and not feel like God, or the pastor, was looking down on me.
The pastor, a tall thin man in his thirties, with black hair and a big smile, invited me into his air-conditioned office for a Coke one afternoon. I wiped the sweat off the back of my neck and said, “No thank you.” He was a man of God, and I was sure that once he found out I wasn’t a believer, I’d melt into hell right in his presence, become a puddle on the floor, just like the Wicked Witch of the West.
Then came a week where I filled in for my friend. Cleaning the toilets in the Sunday school wing was a job I felt worthy of, just Comet, a scrub brush, a toilet bowl and me. I didn’t need to pretend anything. But, then I had to vacuum the Sanctuary. Even though I didn’t necessarily believe in God, I knew God lived in that room, seeing and judging all. God would see me and know, know that I’d never been in that Sanctuary, not even on a Sunday morning. I pulled open one of the heavy wooden doors, and held it with my hip while I pushed the vacuum cleaner in front of me.
The room was stifling hot and the air was still and stale, with the trapped odor of hot cedar and something old, musty and mysterious. I found a plug near the back of the room, and began vacuuming the worn red carpet that led up the aisle and between the pews. I felt like my chest would burst, holding my breath as long as possible, walking between the pews with their books arranged neatly in racks on the backs.
I felt eyes on me, hundreds of eyes, as if the room were filled with ghosts who tucked their feet politely out of the way as I roared by with the vacuum cleaner. I tried not to look up, at the high ceilings at the big paneled walls and glass windows. If I kept my head down, focused on my job, if I didn’t breathe and swiped the carpet as fast as possible, maybe God wouldn’t see me in there, wouldn’t notice that I’d intruded into this place that should be holy and quiet, with my noisy machine and my unbelief.
I bumped my vacuum up the stairs, up around the lecterns and the choir pews, past the table with the huge Bible and big silver cups, sucking up invisible dirt and lint. I kept vacuuming, straight up to the altar, then into the corners sucking up dust and nothing until my machine rumbled underneath the stained glass window of a cross. There on the floor were three dead bees, bees that’d flown into God’s house on accident, bees that’d slammed their little bodies against the colored glass, thinking they’d find pollen, or a way out, bees that couldn’t escape the presence of God, and so had perished.
I sucked them up. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, I thought having seen too many television funerals. I unplugged the vacuum and pushed it out of the sanctuary as fast as I could. Afterward, I breathed hard and deep feeling as though I’d just barely escaped the fate of the bees.