It was when I realized more people were coming out of the bathrooms than going in that I started to get the creeps working at the Plaid. When I got hit by a car working as a bike messenger, it was a way to collect a paycheck while the tendons they reattached in my thumb healed. It was hard to stop a bike when my thumb wouldn’t do what I told it. With the long row of stitches on the back of my hand, my chances for being a wedding ring hand model were slim to none–maybe I could model skull rings–but a friend of a friend hooked me up at the Plaid. Either way, I needed to work. Work kept me out of trouble.
The Plaid where I worked was in deep southeast on Foster Road next to the Portland Funeral Home and across from Evergreen Hills Cemetery. Being the most recent hire, I was the lowest on the shift ladder and worked graveyard, ten to six. My girlfriends teased me about ghosts, asked me if any wandered in from the cemetery looking for Hershey Kisses, none had but I told them otherwise. I hadn’t realized how gullible my friends were until I started winding them up with longwinded tales of horror at the Plaid, full of rattling chains and gurgling headless corpses.
I even told them Elvis haunted my store, fat Elvis from the ’70s, not prewar skinny Elvis, and he had his pants down around his ankles as if he was still on the toilet like the day he died, and with their eyes big and wide they went, “Really?”
I mean, come on, how gullible could they be? Elvis? Why would Elvis haunt a Plaid Pantry on Crapville Road in Speedbump, Oregon of all places? Wouldn’t he be in Graceland, or Vegas at the least? Maybe my girlfriends don’t know much about Elvis, or maybe they’re just really eager to believe in ghosts, and who isn’t?
Ghosts prove there is more to life than this body of meat and bones, that existence goes beyond just this lifetime. That when we die we actually go someplace, hopefully not the Plaid to haunt young women like me, but someplace. It could be Heaven, or it could be Hell, it might involve a lot of virgins–or not. By the way, do you get to chose the sex of those virgins, or is it a random mixed bag? I’m not too sure I’d really want a bunch of inexperienced virgins either way.
The thought that this is all there is scares me more than any ghost going bump in the night. If this life is it, I sure feel stupid for wasting all that time watching television, or giving my friends the silent treatment when I’m pissed at them instead of just cutting to the chase and working things out.
The job at the Plaid was a no brainer. The delivery guys dealt with of most of the restocking while I chilled behind the counter running the cash register. I sold a lot of beer in the hour before I had to chain and padlock the cooler doors at 2am, and a lot of cigarettes and road-kill coffee to the crowd on their way to work in the dawn early hours. And Lotto tickets. People bought Lotto tickets no matter what time it was, praying for that cash-filled dream. Me too, sometimes. Man, the bike I could buy if I hit it big. Custom pink everything with a dash of red on the spoke nipples for flair.
The Plaid could’ve sold a lot of flowers too, people on their way to the cemetery asked for them all the time, that and mini bottles of wine to share with their dead friends, but the manager was too stuck in his corporate box to innovate. If the other Plaids didn’t do it, he wasn’t interested. I tried to talk him into ordering flowers from a florist friend of mine, and I can be more convincing than most, but I got the sense he overlooked suggestions from girls. Girls weren’t corporate enough, especially a chick like me with spiky white hair, raccoon eyeliner and hooker red lipstick. Maybe if I wore a burgundy pantsuit.
Politicians, male or female, or even transgender, aren’t my thing, but I have to give credit to those women legislators. They’ve got some stones wearing the pantsuits they do. I can’t tell if they’re about to sell me a used car sitting on blocks or on their way to be someone’s bridesmaid. They’re wearing the guy’s equivalent of a frosty blue tuxedo with the frilly shirt. Only Elvis could pull off something that hideous.
In fact that’s the outfit I tell my gullible friends Elvis wears when he haunts me at work. I actually freaked myself out with my stories once when one night I could’ve sworn it was Elvis who had just walked in. I got chills all over, but it was just some fat guy stopping in for beer and a burrito. When I commented on his tux, he said he was coming from a wedding. He didn’t like it when I asked him if he’d been the entertainment, like some sort of Elvis impersonator. There’s a panhandler who does that down on Burnside in front of Powells Books, polyester suit, long sideburns and all. I toss him money every time I see him.
The fat guy just looked at me funny and said he’d been the best man. When I followed up by asking if it had been one of those theme weddings where everyone is in costume, he got grumpy and told me to stop being a smart ass and to hurry up with his change for the suitcase of Schlitz he was buying.
They were just innocent questions. I was stuck inside behind the counter, alone and bored for long stretches of time, and I got hungry for news of the outside world, so when Elvis walked in a girl was bound to have some questions. I don’t mind grumpy people, or even rude people, they offer me the opportunity to be the bigger person. So I shared with him my story about Schlitz being the only liquor that ever made me sick. To this day it makes my skin crawl. I took my time ringing him up while I went into all the gritty toilet hugging details. He needed to hear the whole story before he got his change, but he got even grumpier, said screw his change and left in a huff. He waddled out the door, all five foot ten of him, according to the yellow and red security height ruler sticker Mr. Corporate made sure I knew was stuck to the door frame. His buzz must’ve been wearing off but his change was going strong as I slipped it into my pocket. Who knew cashiers got tips.
When I first started working at the Plaid I was a little nervous about getting robbed. Mr. Corporate told me not to be a hero and just give them whatever they asked for. He didn’t really need to tell me that. I wasn’t planning on risking my life over his change in the register. I mean, come on? People were copping candy bars left and right like they were cheap feels and I wasn’t even willing to confront them over that, even bratty school kids I’d usually sideswipe on my bike. But after a while I stopped worrying about getting robbed and forgot about it.
It was the bathrooms I got fixated on. When the high school partiers stopped in to steal their munchies, I’d worry one might be sick in the bathroom and I’d get stuck cleaning it up. That was something I’d quit over. Some people were afraid of small places, others heights, for me it was other people’s puke. They even have a name for it, emetophobia, no kidding. I’d squirm at just the mention of it, let alone having to clean it up.
As a precaution, I started keeping the bathrooms locked and the keys with me behind the counter and only gave them to people I was absolutely certain weren’t going to puke in my bathrooms. If I had even the slightest doubt, I’d say the toilets were broken, but that I wouldn’t call the cops on them if they wanted to pee behind their cars in the parking lot. Mr. Corporate asked me about that, he wanted to know why so many girls were squatting in his parking lot. He must’ve reviewed the tapes from the security cams, something they taught him to do in corporate school. I was up front about what I’d been doing and why, except for telling him it was me suggesting they pee in the lot. He actually agreed with me, but said I should’ve cleared it with him first though, like avoiding puke needed corporate approval. Maybe he’d send an addendum to corporate school.
I was hyper aware of who was going into those bathrooms. I watched them like a hawk. You might even say I was obsessed. My friends certainly did. They thought it was weird that I talked about the bathrooms at work so much, and I had to agree with them. I didn’t listen to them when they talked about the bathrooms they had at work, not that I can ever remember them doing so, but then I noticed the strange happenings.
It’s almost a certainty that more people enter the New York City subway system than emerge from it. Government bean counters commissioned a study where dumb undergrads stood at the subway entrances with counters and clicked away at the people going in, while other dumb undergrads clicked away at those coming out, and when they completed their study and subtracted those going in from those coming out, there was a discrepancy. They were off by a lot, far more than the margin of error they had allowed for. More definitely went in than came out. Maybe they got lost and disappeared, or eaten by those infamous pet baby crocodiles thriving after being flushed down the toilet. No one knew. The bean counters couldn’t explain it except to say that the undergrads were dumber than they initially thought and that they might have to commission another study with smarter undergrads before doing further study using graduate students.
My problem was the opposite and I didn’t need an undergrad with a goatee and counter to tell me more people were coming out of my bathrooms than going in. They were spitting people out like a cloning facility. The first time I really took notice was after I’d been alone in the store for about an hour around 4am and this party girl in a miniskirt came bouncing out of the girl’s room and thanked me on her way out, all five foot two of her, saying I couldn’t imagine how long she’d been holding it and how bad she’d had to go. Well, I could imagine, but that bathroom was locked and so was the boy’s room and I had both keys with me behind the counter, and besides, she seemed kind of drunk and I never would’ve risked giving her a key. She would’ve had to squat in the parking lot.
So I came out from behind the counter and went outside after her, all five foot five of me, but no one was there, not even the sound of a retreating car. Boy, did I get the chills. I went back inside and almost locked up shop and got the hell out of there. It would’ve been the first time those doors had been locked since Mr. Corporate opened the place. But I stayed and told myself the warm august night air was cold, and that maybe the bathroom door hadn’t closed all the way in spite of the heavy duty pneumatic spring that you fought to open it.
It happened again a week later. A frail old man with an adjustable aluminum cane that rattled every time it hit the floor teetered out of my bathroom going off about his prostate with far more information than I ever wanted to know. I mean, if he hadn’t been materializing out of one of my locked bathrooms at 4am like a magic fart, I would’ve shared my tampon versus pad story. But this guy was slow and there was no way he was getting away from me like the girl had.
I caught up with him as he went through the door, all five foot four of him. “Excuse me, sir?”
He kept walking toward the funeral home next door. “What is it? Do you want me to pay for the use of your bathroom? Is that it? It used to be people were more than happy to do you a good turn. Now everything has to be paid for, even the pillow in my crypt.”
I kept walking after him. “It’s not that.”
“Then why are you following me? Your nonsense is going to make me late. I want to get a good seat where I can see everyone who comes.”
As he walked, he drifted ever so slightly off the sidewalk, as if the soles of his shoes weren’t making full contact with the ground. The warm august night gave me the chills again. He was a ghost on his way to count heads at his funeral, and all I could think of to say was, “But why my bathroom?”
“They’re plugged next door. Too much traffic, not enough flush.”
When he realized I was still following him like a puppy dog, he said, “Are you some sort of ghoul who likes to crash funerals?”
I stopped. “No.”
“Good. That would be creepy, but feel free to come. It’s at three this afternoon. Slip some Hershey Kisses in my suit.”
“Hey, how’d you know about…”