Ordeal

The obscene sketch penned on the wall winked at him, and he adjusted his pants, catching the last golden droplets in the warm cotton of his briefs.

The music had been incessant since his entry into the men’s room. Now, exiting the stall, where he had stood uncertain as to whether seating would become required, he wondered what had become of it, until it resumed, a song more or less indistinguishable from the others.

“The yellow pastries will be fine,” she had said, “if they don’t have the pink. They are crumbly and look like breadsticks. You’ll know them.” But he wondered whether Mary had heard known the chain as well as she claimed. “I love it, my grandchildren took me there, and it’s where they all go to work and go on dates, but the coffee list is too complicated. Everything they need. That’s the problem.” she sighed, on a date herself, with him.  “Oh, but they should enjoy it,” Diana cut in.  It was a double-date, saving on the cab fare and half denying to themselves what they were attempting, so late. “It’s so late,” Max returned, “And we have to be up tomorrow for the PA earlier than usual, so that we can make the movie.” He turned to Benny, seeking reassurance, either terrified that too late a night would entail physical intimacy with Diana, or else desperate to commence. He might have taken his pill in the men’s room, for all Benny knew. “Maximilian, here,” Benny returned, “keeping me in line, the true Germanic love for order,” and they laughed, yellowed dentures flickering from purpled lips, colors he recalled from botched watercolors in third-grade art class.

He had seen no yellow pastries when ordering. There had been too much on the menu, each sandwich on its own bread, and the irrelevant display of calories testing the eyes. When he passed by, on the way to the bus, he would ask whether they had it in stock, risk the appearance of senility by attempting to describe something flaky, with yellow or maybe pink frosting, and sweet.

Max would be on the bus by now, continuing his lunchtime diatribe against the movie. It would be hot, the driver wanting to wait to turn on the engine, and his lateness would incur censure. But no, the engine would run. It was not like that anymore. Max, he knew, would at the least remind him that he could not tolerate the heat for so long, and that the health of others was at risk. The driver, young, African-American, would treat the white retirees to the deference to which they were long accustomed. Strange, since he wouldn’t have had it enforced like his parents or grandparents. Maybe he did or maybe he knew from experience what people from his, Benny’s, generation would expect, and so offered it, indulging their quaint, outdated racism, as a sort of kindness before the end. Or maybe not that at all. He had voted for Johnson, and against Nixon, and the riots had seemed comprehendible, even if not what he could bring himself to do.

The water would not run. He had stood with his hands fluctuating beneath the tap for too long, and the duty of hygiene was fulfilled in principle if not action. He was not an employee, and he could wash his hands when he got home. No liquid had tainted his hands, shaky as they had become, and the soap in the dispenser, he had seen on a news report, was as contaminated as the fecal matter that must have lined the objects around him.

The door did not open, push or pull it as he might. It did not, however, feel locked, just stuck, as if a mass of carpet had accrued beneath it. He leant over, one hand catching the door frame for balance, to see for himself the cause of the problem, but then felt his ears tingling with embarrassment at the stupidity of his attempt. Instead, in a smaller effort of greater dignity, he shuffled forward, knocking the toes of his shoes against the base of the door, to see whether he might not dislodge whatever it was beneath. With each movement, the force became greater, until he found himself kicking with some violence, stopping only with the sudden concern that his balance would fail or brown shoes would scuff.

Taking in noticeable gasps of breath, he shook slightly and, stepping back, took off his glasses to rub his fingers along the corners of his eyes, massaging the bridge of his nose. He thought of his son, of his urging that he remember to take the phone with him when he went out, and of his grandchildren for whom he could feign only chilled affection, their resembling grotesquely miniature and disproportioned recreations of his daughter-in-law whom they served as minions when they were not peering down at the screens to take pictures of themselves making facing of mock-seduction. They looked as if they took an unsuccessful street-walker as their role-model, which they might well have done, in light of their mother’s track record.

With the door facing him, unsure of whether he was trapped in a recollection, or whether he was escaping from the present dilemma, or whether it mattered at all, he felt his eyes moisten. He hated the medication, the upsurges of emotion it induced, one of them, he did not know which. He had stopped listening when the nurse explained, again, what he must suffer.  He coughed, restoratively.

Max would not let his absence from the bus go unnoticed. The others from the home would band together in comical solidarity. He had seen a movie long ago, much better than the one he had just seen, in which a group of retirees plot a mutiny in their nursing unit; he did not remember what he thought of it then, but last night at dinner the movie was mentioned, and each of them had seen it, and knew it, delighted at its having fixed itself in their minds despite, or because of, irrelevance, its inconsequential mediocrity, and laughing together as each contributed details to the recollection of it. Eventually none of them knew what in the memory belonged to which of them, and he had reached over and patted Mary’s hand, which, unintentionally maybe, or perhaps acting on a displaced and suddenly restored habit, had taken hold of his. The conversation faded, but his hand remained, natural, in that inadvertent, gentle grasp.

Benny had aged into a deeper self-awareness than any he had known in his prime. The office door had been left open when his wife had arrived and saw him there, and for all of the anger that rose through him at the sound of her voice, aghast, accusing—it remained, even in his memory, utterly distinct from shame. Now, though, and in the past few years, since he had heard of her death, the shame was ferocious, arriving with a thought or dragging with it, as now was happening, that day, and others too. Most shameful of all was his rushed exit, his pursuit of her through the warehouse, her pulling her arm from his and scampering, barely contained sobs, forward, until he tripped on the line spilling from a box. They had manufactured plastic-canvas fabrics for any number of purposes, but the biggest sellers, spiking as the summer bore down, were the red-white-and-blue pool festoons, rows of triangles on strings to be hung across the lanes for races or games. As his foot snagged on the line, and he continued to pull, the ribbons followed his faltering tread, and he had to stop before he trailed a country club’s worth.

To raise his voice, to yell, would be some sort of shameful confession, but he had to do so. She turned once only, and continued to her car.

Summoning his strength, he bellowed, but meekly, too modest to risk a scream.

Waiting and listening, trying to make out a thud of steps beyond the door, or a cessation in the low hum of the restaurant’s activity, he read the notice on the back of the door. This bathroom had been last cleaned an hour before by, and the name was indecipherable. That employee must wash hands. He coughed, reluctantly.

The words touched him unexpectedly as he contemplated their significance and intent.  He felt himself unable to withstand their provocation. They implied such helplessness, such need to oversee the movements of life as if habit could never take hold, as if everyone was always in the process of being formed. He admired habit, the routine of the morning, afternoon, and evening, and he had learned to admire them all the more since his early retirement, when they sustained time, removing its ballast and giving it loft and direction.

And, gracefully, without thought, an example of what he sought to prove still existed, he raised his voice to the door and yelled a second time. “Anyone—I’m here—can someone help! The door! Help please! Help me please” and nothing replied, or thought to reply, making his situation, in one respect, worse than Job’s.

He paced in the silence, still caught in the plight of his own determination, knowing his ears and face to be warmed with embarrassed confusion. He went to work the paper towel dispenser, to convince himself that he had purpose in that space; it was jammed. He looked once again at the door, at the signage, and saw notices elsewhere that he had earlier left ignored, and would happily have ignored still. One of them informing patrons that they were not to use more paper towels than required, for the benefit of the environment. Another directing them towards the high-power hand-dryer, for the benefit of the same. A third, near the urinal, encouraging them to purchase a lemon-strawberry ice drink, available for a limited time, and probably a diuretic.

The music played overhead. He imagined himself swaying in time to it, blithely urinating across the bathroom, falling asleep in a corner, and waking up to a stranger, a lanky teenage attendant, a finger coated in rubber pressed against his neck, as if to check his pulse. It did not seem the least likely of future scenarios, and he would have liked to indulge Max with the image—but not Mary, who maybe would have fretted at its childishness, though he did not know whether she would have. With one of those thoughts, his mouth fell agape in anger again, directed inwardly at nothing in particular. With the rectitude of a pack of migrating geese gathering into formation and altering direction to the south, his anger turned out and confronted instead the moment he was in. The entire situation was childish.

But it was the world that was at fault, childish on all sides, the restaurant managed and patronized by children, his having been for too long now, too condescendingly, bid to wait for them to grow up, which he knew meant waiting for himself to die. He envied Max, who, having had no children of his own, and still having none as a consequence, had never been asked to wait. Was he waiting for him now or was he considering making his move, off the bus, across the hot asphalt and back into the restaurant? Max had moved, unceasing, through life without ever expecting that he do anything otherwise, and even two weeks ago, urging him to speak to Mary, as he spoke to Diana, he had continued on his heroic way; his was a momentous, fantastical independence and Benny, having stepped away from the door, caught sight of himself in the mirror at just that moment and yearned to see it there himself.  “You look just the same as you always did,” he said, and defied himself to reproach the reflection from speaking aloud in solitude.

“Mom…” the word once had been so familiar on his tongue, the intonation even now breaking into a pubescent warble. And louder: “Mom!” He screamed it out now, elongating the syllable, finding in its vacant, expansive middle space enough to untangle and spread out for scrutiny the thread of years.  “MOmMOMmommOMmmommmomMOMmoM” and it went on, until he shook with amazement at himself and at the futility of exuberance. He came to rest on her face, or on a photograph of her face that he remembered, laughing, his brother and him in her arms, behind her a landscape of mountains, somewhere West, but did not remain with the thought. He only panted.

Then silent, not distinctly thinking, and not quite lost to himself, he took his hand to the door and pressed again, his shoulder burning with the effort.

He went back into the stall and sat down on the toilet, staring at the drawing on the wall, alone in an otherwise pristine field of mustard yellow. For a minute he looked, wondering at the care that had gone into the piece, the personification accommodated to its realistic curve, and the uncanny sense of identity. Maybe it was a self-portrait.

From outside the door, a sound: someone trying the door, and then another person, and the voice of a man, “Someone must be in there, I guess it’s a single stall” and another, “Let’s just go at home,” and as Benny gathered himself, pulling up his trousers and fastening his belt (it had seemed wrong, someone, to sit clothed on the seat of the bowl), he knew it was too late that as he arrived at the door, they would be gone, beyond reach of his voice, however loudly he summoned them back. Nobody would return.

He missed her, his urge to see her again that evening, before it was too late—and then knowing it was already too late—overtook him. Mary who, in the silk scarf, in the hair bound back, had hugged him with reassurance and for longer than he had assumed she would; whose name a gangly American accent turned over in his mind; who could breathe unassisted, and whose unassisted breath might nonetheless seek his, somewhere beyond necessity; who had slapped down on the table with inspiring fury when discussing the recent election; who had told him she would wait to hear, and smiled in anticipation, at how bad the movie had been; who he would tease for not having remembered that the pastries there were not yellow and pink—or not tease, but wink with, who would hear this, that night, the tale, told by Max and interrupted by him, of the ordeal of the men’s toilet.

And spinning out, his eyes ravaged the room for some help or means, and, thought and act coinciding in pain, his hand slicing to bleed as it crashed through the glass, he struck at the fire alarm inconspicuous at the corner. “Mary, oh,” and he saw the blood on his hand, “Mary.”

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