Dont look for dignity in public bathrooms. The most youll find is privacy and sticky floors. But when my boss gave me the glossy envelope, 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 contracted through Trailways to keep their little ticket booth and nearby bathroom clean. Id done the same job in other upstate towns, places so small their whole bus stations couldve fit inside Union Stations marbled 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.
When I got the envelope, I went to the bathroom and shut the door. I couldnt 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 werent shining shed launch into the mens room with a fury. She had hopes for a promotion.
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 second stall would be better. I dont know what to say about the hygiene of the male species. I can understand how a person misses the hole when hes 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 nothing else. No return address in the corner or on the back, and no mailing address. My boss just said the creamy yellow envelope had been sitting on her desk when she came in that morning. Propped against the green clay pen holder her son made in art class.
I held the envelope up to the fluorescent ceiling lights and saw two 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.
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 wouldve thought a grenade had gone off from the way I jumped. The little sheets of paper slipped from my palm and floated to that sticky toilet floor.
Aw, Cheryl! I shouted.
Dont give me that, she yelled back.
I walked out the stall to my cleaning cart. Lifted the broom and pulled the cart aside. Didnt even have time to open the door for Cheryl, she just pushed at it any damn way. I flicked the ceiling lights off, like a kid who thinks the darkness will hide him.
Im going to tell you something nice about my boss, Cheryl McGee. She could be sweet as babys feet as long as she didnt 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 didnt know. The stink of failure had followed my relationships for years, and I preferred keeping this job to trying for love again.
Now she stood at the bathroom door, trying to peek around me. A slim little redhead whod grown her hair down to her waist and wore open-toed sandals in all but the worst of winter.
Someones 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 Id been shot at before. Once, I was thrown down a flight of stairs.
I mean, is there anyone in there that I cant fire?
Excerpted from Big Machine by Victor LaValle Copyright © 2009 by Victor LaValle. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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