LaValle+Big+Machine

LaValle+Big+Machine - n...

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Unformatted text preview: n ~.v,.’~wv'/fzg<-wg;mwwnwyym~4 DON'T LOOK FOR DlGNIl’Y in public bathrooms. The most you’ll find is privacy and sticky floors. But when my boss gave me the glossy enve— lope, the bathroom was the first place I ran. What can I say? Lurking in toilets was my job. I was a janitor at Union Station in Utica, New York. Specifically con- tracted through Trailways to keep their little ticket booth and nearby bathroom clean. I’d done the same job in other upstate towns, places so small their whole bus stations could’ve fit inside Union Station’s mar— bled hall. A year in Kingston, six months in Elmira. Then Troy. Quit one and find the next. Sometimes I told them I was leaving, other times I just disappeared. I When I got the envelope, I went to the bathroom and shut the door. I couldn't lock it from the inside so I did the next best thing and pulled my cleaning cart in front of the door to block the way. My boss was a woman, but if the floors in front of the Trailways booth weren’t shining she’d launch into the men's room with a fury. She had hopes for a pro— motion. But even with the cart in the way I felt exposed. I went into the third stall, the last stall, so I could have my peace. Soon as I opened the door, though, I shut it again. Good God. Me and my eyes agreed that the 'sec— ond stall would be better. I don’t know what to say about the hygiene of the male species. I can understand how a person misses the hole when he’s standing, but how does he miss the hole while sitting down? My goodness, my goodness. So, it was decided, I entered stall number two. The front of the envelope had my name, written by hand, and noth— 4 VICTOR LAVALLE different papers inside. One a long rectangle and the other a small square. I tapped the envelope against my palm, then tore the top half slowly. I blew into the open envelope, turned it upside down and dropped both pieces of paper into my hand. ’ “Ricky Rice!" I heard my name and a slap against the bathroom door. Hit hard enough that the push broom fell right off my cleaning cart and clacked against the tile floor. You would’ve thought a grenade had gone off from the way I jumped. The little sheets of ’ paper sh ed from I floated to that sticky toilet floor. PP . my pa m and “AW, Cheryl!" I shouted. “Don’t give me that,” she yelled back. I walked out the stall to my cleaning cart. Lifted the broom and pilled the cirtdaside. Didn’t even have time to open the door for Cheryl s ejust pus e at it an damn wa . Iflick ' ' ' ' 7 kid who thinks the darklhess Will hllde him.ed the celhng hghts Off, hke a I’m going to tell you something nice about my boss, Cheryl McGee She could be sweet as baby’s feet as long as she didn’t think you, were taking advantage. When I first moved to Utica, she and her son even took me out for Chicken Riggies. It was a date, but I pretended I didn’t know The stink of failure had followed my relationships for years and I preferred keeping this job to trying for love again. I Now she stood at the bathroom door, trying to peek around me. A slim little redhead who’d grown her hair down to her waist and wore open-toed sandals in all but the worst of winter. :‘Someone’s in there?” she asked, looked up at the darkened lights. ‘Me,” I said. She pointed her chin down, but her eyes up at me. She thought she looked like a mastermind, dominating with her glare but I’d been shot at before. Once, I was thrown down a flight of stairs: “I mean, is there anyone in there that I can’tfire?" Oop. I lifted the broom and shook it. “I was just sweeping," I said. Cheryl nodded and stepped back two paces. “I don’t mind breaks, Ricky, you know that.” She took out her cell phone and flipped it open, looked at the face. “But I need this station looking crisp first thing in the morning,” “I’ll be done in a minute,” I said. BIG MACHINE 5' Cheryl nodded, reached back, and swept her hand through her waist- length hair. The gesture didn’t look like flirtation, just hard work. “Hey! What did that letter say?" I looked back into the bathroom. “Don’t know yet." She nodded and squeezed her lips together. “Well, I’d love to know," she said, and smiled weakly “Me too,” I told her, not unkindly. I Then, of all things, she gave me a limp salute with her right hand. After that she turned in her puffy gray boots and walked toward the ticket booth. THE BATH ROOM'S WINDOWS were a row of small frosted glass rectangles right near the ceiling. They let in light, but turned it green and murky. Now, as I crept back to the second toilet stall, I imagined I was walking underwater, and felt queasy. I opened the door to find the first piece of paper right where I’d dropped it. And I recognized it immediately. A bus ticket. 7’ I bent at the knees and braced one hand against the stall wall for bal- ance. My right leg ached something awful. I even let out an old man’s groan as I crouched, but that kind of ache was nothing new. I’d felt forty ever since I was fifteen. I held the ticket at an angle so I could read it in the hazy light. One way, from Union Station to Burlington, Vermont. An eleven— or twelve-hour trip if you figured all the station stops be— tween here and there. The date on the ticket read Thursday, the twenty- first of January, just three days off. The name of the company on the top was Greyhound. I worked for Trailways. It sounds silly, but the logo made the ticket feel like contraband. I leaned back, out of the stall, and peeked at the bathroom door to make sure I was still alone. I checked the back of the ticket for something, a note, an explana— tion. Nothing. Then I remembered that I’d seen two silhouettes through the envelope. I ducked my head to the left, looking to the floor of the sanitary first stall, but it hadn’t landed there. Then I looked to my right and saw that little cream-colored sheet, not much bigger than a Post—it, flat on the floor of filthy old stall number three. Let me be more precise. _ Flat on the floor, in a gray puddle, in filthy old stall number three. Forget it. Better to leave it behind than dip fingers in the muck on that floor. Even wearing gloves didn’t seem like enoughvprotection. Maybe a haz- mat suit. VICTOR LAVALLE it wouldn’t move. I had to use my hand. I lurched my middle finger forward, even as I picked the paper up, right out of the muc even run dowu my fingers, it just clung, . ' k. The gray liquid didn’t like Jelly, to the tips. It was cold 1Ellack ink on the paper. Make out the same hand ed my name on the outside of that envelope I mean it, Ricky.” . Cheryl pushed and strained at the You made a promise in Cedar Rapids in 2002. sze to honor it. Without thinking 1 - ; Pure aut t ' . let stall and flushed the nolfe mg? ml I walked baCk Into that filthy t0]— But not the ticket. THREE DAYS I thought about that note. Thought about it, repeated it in my mind, tried to forget it. But on the third dayl showed up at my job with a packed duffel bag, which I stored in my locker, my mind not yet made up. Cheryl kept to herself that morning, which was for the best. If she'd chatted with me like usual, I might’ve admitted what I was considering and she’d have convinced me to stay. It was stupid to do otherwise in 2005. Lots of people were already losing jobs down here in the lower sec— tor. The rest of the country hadn’t been sucker punched yet. The bad news hadn’t trickled up, but it would. Cheryl would’ve pointed all this out, and I would’ve agreed, ripped up the ticket, and taken my duffel bag home at the end of the shift. But I wanted to make up my own mind about this, so my cleaning took on a meditative silence. The only sounds I heard as I wiped down her computer screen were the growling winds outside her office window. The outdoor crew worked on the other side of the glass, shoveling in the storm. I knew the guys who were doing it, and I sympathized. The snow had been up to my shins when I came in at eight, and it hadn’t let up for an hour. I washed windows, emptied trash, dust mopped and wet mopped the Trailways area, and all the while I wondered what to do when the clock struck noon. The bus wasn’t actually leaving until twelve twenty—five, but where’s the poetry in that? By eleven I’d done as much in three hours as I would’ve stretched to ...
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