The Importance of Words
By Evan James Roskos
Ranko enters the classroom.
It may look like he has pale, pale hands—especially because he’s wearing a green army jacket and green work pants—but his hands aren’t pale; he’s wearing rubber gloves. He has an oblong head and a semi-indented lower lip because his lower teeth were taken years ago.
This morning, it takes him five minutes to open the classroom door because interrupting the professor is exactly not the thing he wants. But he needs someone in the classroom to confirm if the noise that needs to be fixed is finally fixed.
As Ranko walks, he keeps tight to the wall and tries to get the professor to look at him. His hands sweat. He pulls at the rubber palm of his left glove, snapping it twice. Water spits around inside the glove.
The professor keeps teaching and doesn’t look at him, which disappoints Ranko. The professor needs to help him erase the noise from the roof, and he needs to make sure that the students don’t disrespect Ranko. The complaint about the noise came in last semester, but other men did not take care of the issue. Ranko found the problem and the part to fix it. He cannot rely on the men he works with to help, so he hopes the professor will be a second pair of ears.
Confirm: silence or sound—an easy job for a professor.
As Ranko reaches the front of the room, he hears the professor talk about metaphor and symbols. Ranko feels happy that he has found a literature professor. This makes erasing the noise more important than ever. More important than just closing the work order. The professor will understand the need to make space for words.
Ranko leans close to the professor and the professor—sitting at a table at the front of the room—stops talking, crooks his neck, and finally makes eye contact. Ranko worries about his voice being too loud and worries that his words will not be easy to understand because of his accent.
“Excuse me, Professor,” Ranko whispers, “I am sorry to come into your classroom.”
“I need to fix the noise that is heard in this room. Have you heard the noise?”
“What kind of noise?” The professor closes his book on his index finger, then looks at the time on his phone.
Ranko reads from his work order, though he knows the description: “A high-pitched squeak when the air conditioning runs.”
“I haven’t really noticed that.” The professor quickly glances at his students. “So….”
Ranko knows that the sound exists.
“I need to replace a part. On the roof. Then I will turn on the air conditioning and then I will come back and ask if you hear anything.”
“Can’t you do this once my class is done?”
Ranko holds his hand up in a pardoning gesture.
“I need you to be in here to tell me if you hear it.”
“Right now? Really?”
“I need you to be in here to tell me if you hear it.”
“Whatever. Let’s get it over with.”
“Good.” Ranko moves much quicker to leave the room. The professor disappoints him, unable to appreciate that Ranko wants to make space for words in the air of the classroom.
As he walks upstairs to get to the roof access, he thinks that the students probably think he is a strange man. Worse, the students likely laughed at him once the door closed. It will be like when he got in trouble this winter.
The winter got cold, as cold as Ranko remembered some winters back home. The cold back home came from the air and the ground. He had lived without heat and had hid outside in the cold, shivering; the cold came from everywhere.
The university sent him to investigate broken heat in the campus apartment of four girls. The girls had called at midnight; when they let him in, he felt their looks. He knew they would laugh at him later. They asked him to repeat himself. Ranko knows his accent is tough, but his English is good; what can he say to people who speak their own language poorly?
“I want you to stay in the kitchen while I look for issue.”
Two of the girls made faces that did not need to be translated. He had seen this look on young Americans before. He rubbed his mouth with the back of his first two fingers, something he had done for a long time. Lacking his bottom front teeth (five of them rest somewhere in the very earth of his homeland), he often rubbed his mouth when people’s eyes lingered there.
After his investigations in the three rooms, Ranko knew the problem couldn’t be fixed that night.
“Bigger problem,” he said. “I will have heaters when I come back.”
“Are you going to fix the heat?” one girl asked.
“I cannot fix the heat tonight. I will bring heaters—small ones—to keep your home warm.”
Ranko started to explain the problem, but the looks they gave him felt cold. They wanted to go to sleep. They stood there, in the kitchen just as he’d asked, in sweatpants and sweatshirts and socks, their hair in ponytails. He wanted to tell them they looked like beautiful sisters, but instead he said, again, that he would come back with heaters.
“You must promise me that you will lock the door as soon as you close it,” he implored them. He worried very much that the unlocked door would welcome terrible things.
“Sure thing,” the one girl said, leading him to the door.
“It is important that you promise and you do it.”
The girl smiled at him and he thought she might be respecting him, but when the door closed behind him he didn’t hear the lock click.
He walked a few steps away so they couldn’t see him through the peephole in the door. Then he moved back to the door and opened it.
“I told you to lock this!” he said, angrily. “You promised you would lock this!”
“Mister, what is your problem?”
The girls were not happy with him.
“Where I come from girls need to lock doors and windows.”
“Why don’t you go back there, then?”
Ranko’s heart hurt from pounding. The girls did not want him to protect them. Even though he felt their disrespect, he apologized and promised to bring heaters and left.
Once he got back to the maintenance office, the dispatcher told him someone else would bring the heaters.
“The girls complained about you. Said you were creepy. What did you do?”
The night dispatcher was an old black man that Ranko had only talked to once before.
“I asked them to lock their door when I left.”
“They said you came back in after that.”
“They didn’t lock the door.”
“They said you scared them.”
“They wouldn’t have been scared if the door kept me out.”
Neither said anything until the dispatcher repeated that he’d send someone else to bring the heaters. Ranko didn’t get sent to many more late night calls on his own.
As he fixes the air conditioning, Ranko thinks about those girls and wonders if the ones in the classroom below called him a creepy man when he left. Will the professor be like the dispatcher and agree with them?
Ranko replaces the part. A simple wheel. He holds the old one and sees where the old belt hugged against the metal the wrong way. In his mind, Ranko can see the wheel and belt moving—the whole machine can work in his head and he can move around it to see how it’s supposed to work. This is how he figured out why the wheel squeaked. The belt had hugged the wheel off-center, just slightly; that pushed the rod constantly on one side more than the other. The bent rod kept the belt off center more and more.
So, new wheel, new rod, new belt, and grease.
Ranko knows the men he works with would not know to replace all the parts. They simply replaced the belt and said the people still complaining of the sound were liars.
He starts the air conditioner. He can’t hear a squeak, but downstairs will be the key. He picks up his toolbag and climbs down the ladder back into the building. He locks the hatch that leads to the roof and then locks the gate that covers the ladder because students will try to get hurt.
When Ranko opens the classroom door, the room is empty. The clock on the wall reads 9:15. Ranko doesn’t know when the class ended and he didn’t get the name of the professor. He listens to the air conditioner and doesn’t hear anything; that’s a good sign. But who will sign his work order? If he hands it in without some kind of signature, the order will remain open and only he will know that it is not open. The men he works with are too lazy to investigate if someone already fixed the air conditioner; they might break the unit thinking they are fixing it.
Ranko heads downstairs to the office of Financial Aid. A plump woman sits at a window and asks if he needs help.
“I need to know who taught upstairs. Eight o’clock. Room 206.”
The woman hesitates. She looks at Ranko, but not because his face alarms her. She’s thinking—he can see this.
It reminds him of his wife when she would think. She always thought, hard, and it etched her face with lines. Even when thinking about whether she liked something. “This should be an easy thing,” he would say, “to say what you feel.” His wife claimed not to be so quick with her feelings. Because she loved him, Ranko never held her slow thinking against her.
As if pinched, the woman realizes she can access the information he needs. As she types and clicks, she describes why she has access to the class schedule for her job. Ranko tries to listen, but much of what the nice woman says dissolves in his ears just after he hears it. He needs to see things work to understand. Words, alone in the air, can mean things but only when they mean things in and of themselves. Ranko can read things aloud and hear them. Poetry, plays. Those things can make sense when the words are alone in the air. But most of his life is defined by processes or the manipulation of devices and objects.
Of course, there are some words that were alone in the air that remain. The words his wife said the last time she could speak. They are alone in the air of his brain and will never dissolve.
Swift and triumphant, the woman hands Ranko a printout.
“Looks like the professor’s name is Foals.”
“Thank you,” Ranko says.
Ranko will try to remember the nice woman’s name because she did not stare at his lower lip and she didn’t need him to repeat himself and she seemed so happy doing her work.
She knows the importance of listening.
Reading the printout, Ranko sees that Professor Foals’s class ended at 9:30 and that he doesn’t teach in the building again. He does, however, have a class at 2:00, but Ranko cannot wait until that time to get the professor’s signature. Ranko decides to walk to the English department to see if the man is in his office.
The walk takes Ranko across campus on a slight incline. He doesn’t mind the walk because the morning sun makes the air taste warm. Ranko thinks back but cannot remember the nice days from when he was young. They existed, but most of his memories contain redactions. Still, walking in a place called New Jersey, across a university campus, on a warm day, free to do his work and then go home and read Shakespeare aloud—it helps make up for lost memories.
The building with the English department has three floors. Ranko walks up the stairs and feels a little tired. The secretary asks if he needs anything. He pauses to let his breath catch up, then says he needs to speak with Professor Foals.
“Dr. Black!” the secretary yells into an office. “When are Professor Foals’s office hours?”
Ranko finds this yelling unnecessary and so does Dr. Black, since she actually gets up and walks out of her office to answer the question.
Ranko knows Dr. Black, though he wonders if she will remember him. The look on her face says that she does remember and her sweet voice makes Ranko feel less like an intruder.
“Hello, Ranko!” Dr. Black says with great honesty. “How are you doing?”
“I am good. Are you?”
“Busy but good. I haven’t seen you up here in a while.”
Ranko says he stopped by to see her last month but she was not around.
“I was probably teaching. I’m sorry I missed you!”
“You should not apologize for working. You have many things to do.” He explains that he needs to get Professor Foals to sign his work order.
“I believe he actually has his office hours in the student center. In the Pit.”
“Around all the students?”
“He says it’s lonely in his office.”
Ranko rubs his mouth, this time because he wonders why anyone would choose to be around all that noise and distraction, in a place called The Pit. To hide from people—when you have all sorts of time to spend with them otherwise—seems like it would not be lonely. It would be rest.
“Does he read there?” Ranko asks.
“I think he plans for class.” Dr. Black shrugs. “I wouldn’t be able to concentrate. Plus, I need all my filing cabinets.”
“Do you like my army coat?” he asks, holding out his arms. “Army green. I wore green pants. I feel like a soldier.”
“I was going to say that you look very official today.”
Ranko hides his hands and thinks he should have taken off his rubber gloves, but he didn’t want to lose the notes he’d written on them. Measurements, times, things he needed to complete the work order. Writing on his skin proved too difficult—dealing with sweat or dirt, pens will not always respond. But on rubber gloves, words and figures remain.
“Have you been reading any Shakespeare lately?” Dr. Black asks.
“Every night, before I sleep.”
“It gives me big dreams.”
“I imagine so.”
A phone rings behind Dr. Black; she excuses herself. Dr. Black is a good person because she gave him a book of Shakespeare. Ranko thinks that Dr. Black might be his only friend in America; things like gifts matter that much.
He makes his way down the steps and back outside, a bit less thrilled by the warm air now because of all the walking. When the office texts him on his phone, he says he’s finishing the paperwork on the morning’s project. His thumbs do not move quickly for the purpose of texting, so it takes him a bit, but this is the easy way to tell his supervisor to go away.
The student center sounds like a whirlwind, on some days the noise level whirs loud like plane engines. Boys and girls grab coffee on their way to class. Also, there are kids that hang out, complain, sleep, listen to music. Some of them read, but they do not seem to enjoy the books they read. The sizes and shapes of the books remind Ranko of his own time in college, learning physics, calculus. Ranko once knew how to build bridges and buildings and roads. He probably still knows but doesn’t get to ever do it. Something about this makes him sad. Perhaps because he only remembers dead buildings against gray skies, black smoke, fires. The ruin of what he once knew.
Ranko sees Dr. Foals sitting in The Pit—essentially a large, open area with tables and chairs people enter by descending stairs. Ranko rarely has to walk through The Pit. He can circle around it, avoiding people, getting to the various offices that line the outer, elevated ring. But today he must descend like the students, and he feels that with all the noise around him it will be difficult to explain his devotion to this job to the man who thinks being alone makes for loneliness.
Ranko walks up to the table. “Professor. I have found you.”
“Oh.Yes.” The professor has a surprised look.
“I came back to the classroom; you were not there.”
“Class was over.”
“I know that you were supposed to teach until 9:30.” Ranko wants to sit down but does not want to be rude.
“Well, I let them out a little early. Which I’m allowed to do when they can’t concentrate on the story because someone interrupted my lecture.”
“I came to the room at 9:15 to confirm that the sound had been removed.”
“We heard the air conditioning go on, but no squeals or squeaks.”
“Good.” Ranko removes two of the pieces of paper from a pocket inside his jacket. He puts the first one on the table. “I would like you to sign this paper, this work order, to say the sound is gone.”
Foals picks up the paper to read it, but his eyes linger on Ranko’s gloved hands.
“It says here that a professor from the school of Business reported the issue.”
“Why doesn’t he sign?”
“I will find him to sign.”
“I’m not interested in signing this. I didn’t actually report this problem.”
Ranko pushes his heels firm into the floor of The Pit. This refusal seems unwarranted. The professor should be relieved that Ranko destroyed the sound and made room for words in the air.
“I will tell you why I tracked you today.”
“I’m interested how.” Foals looks at Ranko’s mouth.
Ranko explains his morning journey. The professor snaps his laptop closed. He checks the clock on his phone. Unable to relax, Ranko winds up his story quickly.
“I did not want to disturb your class,” he says, “but I want to be sure to finish this job.”
“And all you need is for me to sign this?” Foals holds up the paper.
“Yes. But also understand.”
“If you can get this guy—Professor Goss—to sign, then I’ll sign. I’m not sure why you need me to, but I’ll do it if he does.”
Ranko takes the paper and says nothing. Professor Foals has no respect for him. A sad fact; he teaches literature and should have interest in Ranko, where he’s from, why he’s so diligent in his job. Instead, the professor opens his laptop again.
“I will be back quickly.”
The Business department building is one floor below the English department. More walking, but Ranko is not be discouraged.
No one answers when Ranko knocks on Goss’s office door. At first, he fears this job will not get closed today, but then he finds the office of the department head. Hovering at the door, Ranko frets about having to interrupt yet another person in an effort to complete his first job of the day.
It’s getting close to lunchtime.
His stomach begins to protest emptiness.
“Can I help you?” the head of the department asks without looking away from his computer.
“Sir, excuse me, but I have completed a work order in Smee Hall and must get a signature from the Professor Goss that confirms the work is complete. But he is not here —”
“I’ll sign it.”
Ranko doesn’t move. The head of the department looks at Ranko, but it’s not a stare or a glare or anything. The man just wants Ranko to hand the paper over.
“I did fix it,” Ranko assures him, “with parts I ordered.”
“I trust you. Dr. Goss won’t be in this week, and I know it’s easier to put these things to bed with some kind of signature.”
The man signs the paper. Ranko likes the phrase “put these things to bed.” He repeats it: “Thanks. I will put this to bed.”
Then he’s back outside before he thinks that maybe this signature will not be enough for Professor Foals.
When Ranko gets back to the student center, he does not wait to sit down. He fears that this man Foals will be annoyed that he’s returned so quickly and will outright refuse to do something simple.
“Professor. I have the signature of the head of the Business Department. Dr. Goss will be away until next week. Will this be acceptable to you? Will you sign?”
Foals looks up from his computer but doesn’t answer. He just takes his pen and starts to sign the paper, which is still facing Ranko. Thus, the signature is upside down.
Ranko rubs his lower lip with the back of his first two fingers.
“Is that alright?” Foals asks.
Ranko turns the sheet around but keeps a hand on it.
“I want you to know, Professor, that I did not track you down just because I think you will sign my work order. I need it signed but I do not need you to particularly sign it. The person who complained of the noise teaches in a department that does not think the same as English professors.”
“Well, I don’t know if we’re much different from most departments about things like this.”
“No. The sound to him is just a nuisance. I want to fix it for him, but I know that the sound in the classroom is more important to you because you teach literature.”
“Why’s that different? Doesn’t his department have plenty of students that deserve to hear him?”
“You must teach in a perfect room. The words are the most important things.”
The professor is quiet. Ranko waits.
“Students must be able to understand what you are saying, but it is difficult to see the words in the air when the air is polluted.”
The professor will not admit he understands. Ranko does not want a thank you, he just wants a signal that Professor Foals understands.
No words come forth.
“There are men I work with,” Ranko says, “the men are lazy. They let that sound go all year. They say there is no sound or the sound cannot be fixed. I fixed it. I found the problem and the parts. The men I work with do not care. They complain. They do one job a day and when there are days with no work, they talk of being bored.”
“Seems like a problem in lots of jobs,” the professor says.
“Back in my home, people had problems. But people here, they would be trouble in my home.” Ranko stares at the professor, hard in the face. He wants the professor to feel a little awkward. The professor looks at Ranko’s mouth, but Ranko only rubs his mouth once.
“In my home they would have to pick up guns, lock their doors, protect people. Not just themselves.”
“You don’t think people are capable of that here?”
“People here would make terrible soldiers.”
The professor unfolds his arms and leans forward.
Ranko wants to hear what he has to say. What does a man say when he thinks he’s being insulted? What does a man say when he should know better, but cannot make eye contact?
“Is that how you judge people?” Professor Foals asks.
“A man knocked out my teeth.” Ranko pulls his lower lip down. “I had to let it happen. I pulled the broken pieces out myself with pliers.”
The professor clears his throat. His eyes dart to Ranko’s mouth and then aim at some noisy group of kids behind him.
Ranko does not think about where his teeth might be or the remains of his wife, daughters, friends. Ranko tries not to judge people, but what else can he do when surrounded by the weak?
“What is your name?” the professor asks.
Ranko picks up the pen, stands, and then leans down to print his name in block letters:
R A N K O
He puts the pen down and says his name “Ranko. Ranko.” Twice to affirm his name for the professor of literature who has trouble with kindness.
“Is that Russian?”
“No. People didn’t know my country until many of us died or were chased away.”
“One of the Russian states, though, right?” The professor wants Ranko to be Russian, for some reason.
“Most people don’t know on the map where I am from when I say where I am from. Even the people who live there have problems and fight. The lines change.”
“Were you part of the whole Serbian thing?”
Ranko hears the word and feels a chill.
“The best way to know where you are is by the people around you. I am Bosniak in America, now. But most people here think I am still from somewhere else. Like I wake up in my old home and take boat and train to come to work every day.”
“You have family here?”
Ranko presses the back of his first two fingers against his mouth. He does not respond. The story of his family deserves to be kept out of the air, especially since this man took too long to be kind.
“Ranko. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I was gruff. Thank you for going through all this to fix the air conditioning.”
“Do not thank me. It is my job, so I do it.”
“No, thank you. Because you care about it.”
“I care about the words.”
“Well, my students don’t. I can’t get them to care about the way things are said.”
“Because you don’t care. They watch you, they see you here, distracted. In The Pit. Words cannot live here.”
“I do care.”
Ranko smiles, nods, and walks out of the Pit. Ranko heard no conviction in the man. Saw none. Smelled none. Just bitter coffee breath, rolling out of a mouth that taints the words, because it’s a mouth that has never begged for life or mercy or anything.