I took the stairs. The building isn’t as dark as you would think it should be at night. Even though I’m the only one on the top two floors, they keep most of the hall lights on, and the stairwells are always lit. So I walked up, thinking about the story I would tell you when I got home, before you go to school, and I go to sleep, and thinking about the breakfast we would have; probably toast and eggs, maybe oatmeal, and how the jelly from your toast might get stuck in your braids. I thought about that too, before I pushed through the mahogany doors of the president’s office.
I wiped my hands on my pants and used my elbows to open the glass doors that lead to the rooftop patio. No sense in smudging something I’d just cleaned. That’s when I saw him, sitting there, with his bare feet swinging over the edge.
I always knew they were around, but I’d never seen one. Sometimes, when I’m cleaning, I feel them brush by, but always just out of my sight, or my time, or something, but I’d never seen their magnificent wings with my eyes. So when I could see him, I stopped, wondering if it was some mistake, or if I had died, and that was why I could see him. Without turning around, he held out my coffee.
“Thank you,” I stuttered, stepping forward, not sure if I should look at him. It’s hard to know the proper manners for when you meet an angel.
“You’re not dead,” he turned to look at me. His eyes were lavender. Lavender, or maybe violet, like the flowers, with white eyelashes, and eyebrows set high on his head, arched so I thought I was the most important thing he’d ever seen.
“Thank you again.” I wasn’t sure what else I should say. “Do you sit here often?” Of course, questions never sound as silly in your head as they do once you say them, but what else can you ask an angel?
“Yes, I’m here most every night.”
I took a step closer and reached for my thermos. The back of my hand brushed against his wing, and then I couldn’t help but look. It was softer than anything I’d ever felt—like how I thought clouds felt when I was your age, before I knew they couldn’t be held, or how it might feel for a mermaid to swim through the long sea grass, or a baby’s hair right after their born, the first time it dries. That’s what the wings reminded me of, the first time I felt your hair.
He knew I watched his wings. There was a slight ripple everywhere my gaze fell, as if he could feel me watching. And I tried not to look too much, because his wings were dirty, and a little tattered, especially on the edges.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“It’s fine.” He kicked one large foot forward. His feet were dirty too.
“Do you mind if I ask what happened?”
He looked down at me. “What do you mean?”
“Well,” I shrugged, “Your wings look a bit…worn.”
“I’ve just been working. That’s all.”
“hmmm…” I took a sip of my coffee. I expected it to be cold, sitting out on the balcony like it was, but it was still hot. “Did you do this?” I held up the cup.
He blushed and nodded.
“What’s your name,” I leaned on the railing next to him.
“It’s a…I guess you could say it’s a secret.”
“Are all the angel’s names secrets?”
“Most of them. My name would be difficult for you to say, anyway. It’s more of what you might describe as a feeling, or a calling.”
“Then how does one call you?”
“There’s no reason to call. We know.”
I swung one leg over the rail and sat next to him. The top of my head reached to just below his shoulder. His arms were about as wide as my legs. “Are all angels as big as you?”
He smiled and looked down at me again with his lavender eyes. “You’re not small for a human.”
“I’m small compared to you.”
“You’re great compared to me.”
“What do you mean? I’m a janitor. I’m not great.”
His wings fluttered, and for a minute I thought it was an errant breeze. A dirty feather floated to the stone railing and disintegrated to dust.
“Is that what all this dust is?” I pointed to the floor I would have to sweep again.
“That’s some of it.”
We sat quietly, shoulders slumped, watching the lights of the city below.
“I wish I could fly like you. I wish I understood things. I wish I were an angel.” I looked up to the starless night. Another feather fell. I caught this one, but it dissolved to a fine dust and floated away. The angel looked tired.
“Why does that happen?” I stared into my empty hand. “Why do your wings look like that?”
I didn’t want to answer. They were not perfect, as I’d imagined angel’s wings should be. His hands were large and calloused, his feet, dirty. He looked as if he worked for a living. He turned and brought his legs back around to stand on the rooftop, and my breath caught in my chest. I scrambled to kneel in front of him, but my knees were locked and I couldn’t move.
“I’m sorry.” I was scared because I was stuck. “I’m no judge of angels. I’m only trying to understand why you are here.”
“Your knees will not bend because you cannot kneel before me. You only kneel before your maker.”
“Yes,” I nodded emphatically before looking into his face.
His eyes shown as if he was lit from the inside, and I couldn’t look away because I knew he looked at me with the same wonder in which I watched him.
“Why do you look at me like this?” I whispered.
“Because you are wonderful.” He reached and touched my cheek, and I felt for only a moment like I would cry, or laugh, or maybe float into the air.
“But there are billions of us. I am nothing.”
He twitched, and again a feather fell, but his piercing eyes never left mine.
“You want to know why that happens,” he said simply.
I nodded, dropping my gaze to the floor.
“Let me show you something.” He held out his hand. I touched the tips of his warm fingers. Suddenly, I wanted to be stretched out in a field under the sun, watching shadows of clouds dance across the hills, and I was there, with my hair tangling in the long grass and the smell of fresh-tilled black earth filling my nostrils. In a flurry of movement, we stood on the mast of a ship in the middle of the salty ocean with the stars twinkling to the rhythm of the waves lapping the hull. Then we stood in a cavernous, dusty room with yellow light pouring into a window. A young man furiously polished a sculpture of a woman holding the body of a crucified Christ.
“Time is different than you think,” the angel answered my unasked question before stooping to brush dust away from a sketch. He dipped a finger into a bucket of water with a ladle. Sunlight glinted off the ripples, catching Michelangelo’s eye, reminding him he was thirsty. That’s who he was, I was standing with Michelangelo, and he looked, well, typical.
Michelangelo dropped his rag and walked to the bucket. He lifted the ladle to his lips and drank deeply. I was so close I could hear him swallow. He returned to pick up his rag and continued. The angel backed out of his way and watched wistfully.
“You are a caretaker,” I said.
“Yes.” The angel ran a rough hand along Christ’s stone hair. “It is what I was created for.”
He paused, and again answered my unasked question, “No, it is not what you were created for. We are not the same in this.” And gingerly, being careful not to disturb the workshop, the angel unfurled his wings. Pair after pair of heavily feathered limbs unfolded to fill the room, and then we were back to the rooftop with my thermos in my hand.
“You are created in His image. That is why you are great.”
“But surely, if I am created in His image, you are an even finer specimen.” I thought about the arthritis in my aching knee and my need for bifocals.
“No, created in His image does not mean you look like him.” The angel smiled down at me, loving me not as if I were his child, but rather, a treasure to be held. “Created in His image means he gifted you with God-like abilities.”
“If I have God-like abilities, why do I push a broom every day?”
The angel smiled, and his white hair glowed even whiter. “You can create. “You create every day.”
I watched his face, waiting for him to explain. He nodded his head slowly at my lack of understanding.
“You find new ways to do things. That is creation. Some humans draw, or sculpt, or create music. We can only sing the music. We watch, and help where we can, but we cannot create it. We like to listen and we imitate. After the Sabbath, we collect the new voices and they give us new songs for the next six of your days.”
“But I am a caretaker like you. I do not paint, or play an instrument, or sculpt.” I thought back to the yellow light streaming through Michelangelo’s studio. “I clean away the dust, like you.”
“No, you invent stories. You tell them to your daughter every morning when you return home.”
Then I thought of you, and of our time together, and how I would tell you what the angel looked like, and where he took me, and how I would let you drink from my coffee mug, so you could sip from the cup an angel held in his huge hand.
“Pushing a broom is what you do it is not who you are. You are a creator. You are fashioned in his image.”
I looked past the angel to the sky. It was growing pink with the coming sun. His white hair stood out in contrast, and then faded, almost to a cloud. And his eyes melded with sunrise, and then I stood alone, knowing I had a lot of cleaning to do, but I imagined how I would come home, and sit with you here on my lap, and tell you how what you do isn’t who you are, and how maybe at school today, you should paint the best picture you can imagine.