EXCUSE ME? she said. Help, I need—can you help me? She was standing at the side of the counter, in the hallway that led to the booths and the bathroom. Blood pasting her white jeans to her thighs. She was hunched almost double, arms wrapped around her stomach, and through the limp hair lashing her face she smiled around a crop of buck teeth. A strand of saliva looped to the floor. Sorry, she said, wiping her mouth on her wrist. I’m sorry.
Are you okay? I asked, stepping backward, away from her, until my foot met the wall. The smell of burning sausage poured from the ovens. She smiled again. I had a miscarriage, she said. In your bathroom?
I opened my mouth, imagining an actual baby in there, slick and twisting on the tile.
Maybe you could call someone? she suggested, her voice very small, high, like a child’s. Blood all the way to her socks. An ambulance?
Okay, I said, reaching for the wall phone, okay—
I turned the open sign off and sat beside her in a booth. I kept thinking how the splits in the vinyl bench would soak up the stuff coming out of her, right down into the foam. Jason would be pissed, like I’d spilled my own blood there on purpose. The girl trembled, knees tight together, making a sound like hm, hm, as her hands, thin but veined like a man’s, crept over her elbows. I didn’t think to put down a towel or give her a glass of water. She leaned over the tabletop to look out the window, neon from the shop signs pooling in the flooded gutters.
Do you think they’re coming soon? she asked. Even her hair had blood in it, from where she’d sat on it, or pushed it back with her fingers. I moved away a little, to the very edge of the seat, and she whispered, calmly, still facing the window, It’s okay.
When the ambulance stopped at the curb I could see two men through the window, heads down in the rain, carrying a stretcher. Oh, she said, and then the men were in the room, dripping onto the mats, and I stood up so they could touch her wrist and flash lights in her face. When they asked her What happened her eyes slid over to mine and she smiled, sucking her lower lip between those enormous teeth, before passing out in their arms.
I spent an hour in the bathroom with a bucket of bleach and paper towels and a pair of yellow gloves with crud in the fingertips. I wiped the porcelain over and over with one hand while I breathed into my elbow. There was something the size of a steak in the toilet, sunk in the red water, organ-like; it didn’t look like a baby, but maybe there was a piece of a baby inside it—an eye, a finger, a face—and I wondered if there was something I should do with it, but I couldn’t think of anything. I flushed, coughing. The thing squeezed down the pipe, and little bits of whatever it was gurgled back up into the pit of the bowl so that I had to stand there and flush until the water was clear.
She’d used up the toilet paper, stuffed long red ropes of it into the trash. There were meat-colored streaks all over the floor where she’d walked in her own blood. And the graffiti on the walls that Jason loved—that’s what she had to look at while it happened, things like Wesley King eats dick and Fuck off and die. The overhead light was dim and the dark blue walls were almost black and I knew I wasn’t
seeing it all, getting it all, the mess she’d made, but I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I left. I took the trash out to the dumpsters and ate cold pepperoni and drank a cup of Mountain Dew. The phone rang.
Hi, she said. Hi, it’s you?
I spit the pepperoni into a napkin. Yes, how—
I’m sorry, she said, I know—there was a mess. I would have cleaned it. I would have—
It’s fine, I interrupted. I could still feel the pepperoni in my mouth, slippery, rancid. Are you okay?
Oh, yes, she said. Yes.
That’s good, I said.
Thank you, you know, for—calling the ambulance. For staying with me.
It’s fine. There was a long pause; when she spoke again, her voice was whispery but loud at the same time, like she had her mouth pressed up against the receiver. Did you see it? she asked.
When you were cleaning up, she said. Did you see anything? I thought of the black shape in the water, its gleaming sides.
Not really, I said.
I did, she said, sniffing. I touched it, even. I thought it would be, you know, that you could see what it looked like. But it wasn’t a baby. It was something else. No one really told me—what it was—
Her voice broke off. A little breath.
And you—you just—flushed it, right? she said.
Yeah, I—I mean, you left it there, I—
She giggled. No, I mean, of course, it’s okay, that’s great, you were really great, she said, and she stayed on the line for a moment, and so did I, listening to her, listening to her listening to me, and then she made a noise, like a part of a laugh, or a sob, and then she hung up.
I walked home in the rain, slowly getting soaked, up to my ankles in the filthy water. It was a Monday night and everything was closed. I wondered if they’d given her new clothes to wear at the hospital, or if someone’d brought her something to change into—I didn’t know how it all worked, who would clean her, how she would clean herself. There’d been a trail of blood from the bathroom to the counter to the booth to the door, blood on the medics’ blue suits as they carried her out. I imagined having what she had, a place in my body that could splash an entire room with my insides and then let me walk away. I got an erection though I didn’t mean to. I pushed my hands into the front pocket of my hoodie and rubbed them against my crotch, grimacing, not feeling good at all. When I got to my apartment my roommates were already in bed and I fell on the couch in my wet clothes and went to sleep.
The next time I saw her she wasn’t alone. Her boyfriend towered over her, with a thick red beard and a gut of hard fat stacked over the belt of his khakis. She was pressed against his side, her head grazing his armpit, in a tank top and a short corduroy skirt, showing off her flat chest and pale legs. He ordered a slice of the Five Meat and she wanted a Diet Coke. He took their change and I gave her a cup. Our fingers touched. I turned to get some crusts from the freezer, feeling her gaze crawl up my neck; when I glanced back at her she was smiling. I went around the ovens to the sink just to get away from them. He said something and she laughed. I stared at the rack of dirty pans and counted the days since she’d come in, two, three, four—why was she laughing? How long did you have to wait until you could laugh again after something like that? Finally I heard the door open and I walked to the front. She had her head on his arm, her hair grazing her waist. I looked for the blood but of course it wasn’t there. Bye, she said, and I said Bye, out of habit, back.
They came in once or twice a week, sitting in the booth where we’d sat together, her ass or his ass right on top of the tape I’d put over the split in the seat, right on top of where her blood had been, still was. I knew they were fucking a lot. He would grab her bony wrists and pull her across the table for a kiss, her body jerking like a puppet, and while he ate he grinned at her like he was thinking about something dirty. If he was on top of her—I imagined it against my will. How could it not hurt her? He was so big. That sloppy body, his filthy beard. I was nineteen. I was a virgin. The counter came all the way up to her chest and when they ordered she stood there kneading the edge of it with her thumbs in this weird way. I didn’t know what to do. I served her, I served her boyfriend. I cleaned up after them—their dirty plates, their crushed napkins—I let them smear themselves all over the place. She had a habit of putting her forehead right on the window when she looked out of it. The grease from her face left a mark on the glass and I wiped that off, too.
I peed into a Styrofoam cup on my breaks. During the shift overlap I watched the others tick off their names on the bathroom maintenance clipboard but I didn’t tick mine. Jason came in at the end of my shift and started saying he couldn’t trust me if I slacked off whenever he went out of town. I stood against the wall and nodded, keeping myself very still. He went to take a piss. I waited. What the fuck, he shouted a minute later, the door banging against the wall as he kicked the plunger into the hallway. The toilet’s fucking clogged, he said. I didn’t move. He snapped his fingers in my face. Hey. Genius. Wake up. I said I’d take care of it. I don’t remember if I did. I don’t remember ever going back in that bathroom again.
But she did. Both of them did. Once they went in there together and when they came out she was licking her lips and giggling. Though when she saw me looking she stopped. A muscle in her cheek twitched and her lips were struggling to get around her buck teeth. I kept staring at her. Her boyfriend was leaning over the stack of flyers beneath the window, his foot in the air, and she was caught between the two of us, between me and him, me and the black door behind her.