Oop. I lifted the broom and shook it.
I was just sweeping, I said.
Cheryl nodded and stepped back two paces.
I dont 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.
Ill be done in a minute, I said.
Cheryl nodded, reached back, and swept her hand through her waist-length hair. The gesture didnt look like flirtation, just hard work.
Hey! What did that letter say?
I looked back into the bathroom. Dont know yet.
She nodded and squeezed her lips together. Well, Id love to know, she said, and smiled weakly.
Me too, I told her, not unkindly.
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 bathrooms 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 Id dropped it. And I recognized it immediately.
A bus ticket.
I bent at the knees and braced one hand against the stall wall for balance. My right leg ached something awful. I even let out an old mans groan as I crouched, but that kind of ache was nothing new. Id 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 between 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 explanation. Nothing. Then I remembered that Id seen two silhouettes through the envelope.
I ducked my head to the left, looking to the floor of the sanitary first stall, but it hadnt 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.
Better to leave it behind than dip fingers in the muck on that floor. Even wearing gloves didnt seem like enough protection. Maybe a hazmat suit.
Leave it there. Make peace with a little mystery.
I stood and rubbed my bad knee, even turned to leave, but you know that old saying about curiosity: curiosity is a bastard.
I opened the door of stall number three and tried not to look at the bowl itself, or at all that had smeared and splashed along the seat and the back wall. I opened my mouth to breathe, but the faint whiff of filth, like a corrupted soul, haunted me. It made my eyes tear up. Even my ears seemed to ring. I bet I looked like a nerve gas victim.
So I used the toe of my boot to tug the sheet of paper toward me, but it wouldnt move. I had to use my hand.
I lurched my middle finger forward, even as I pulled my head back, and touched the corner of the soaked little sheet. I flicked at it and flicked at it, but the damned thing barely shifted. I had no choice.
I picked the paper up, right out of the muck. The gray liquid didnt even run down my fingers, it just clung, like jelly, to the tips. It was cold and lumpy. My skin went numb. The wet paper lay flat in my palm; I peeled it off with my left hand, then held it to the greenish light of the windows.
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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No Man's Land
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