The wet sucking sound of the plunger could not entirely drown out the opening stanza of “Santa Baby” being piped through the store. The strange acoustics of bathrooms gave the song an eerie echo. Maggie was internally composing a strongly worded letter to the “resource center” about Christmas music in March. March! For fuck’s sake. Maggie channeled her irrational hatred of Christmas music through the plunger.
The seal slipped on a downward thrust, breaking through Maggie’s internal pity party with a brown slosh. The unmistakable smell of human feces flooded the small cubical. Maggie somehow executed a simultaneous jump backward and upward while turning away and gagging into her shoulder. Had there been a witness, they would have seen her momentarily defying gravity. Suspended halfway up the cubical door, slowly swinging outward, plunger held rigidly away from her, almost puking on her own shoulder. She gagged several times. If she had to puke into an already clogged toilet, she might just quit.
Santa Baby, forgot to mention one little thing, a ring.
She might just quit anyway. Some situations make you reassess your life choices.
Maggie took what she assumed would be a temporary job at Books’N’Stuff 5 years ago. She was going to establish residency and go back to college. Or move somewhere else, maybe go back to college there. Her job wasn’t hard. She ran a used bookstore. Doing so meant she also spent a fair amount of time plunging toilets. (Fun Fact: People poop in bookstores. Doesn’t matter where, doesn’t matter when. Bookstores are better than bran muffins and 32 ounces of coffee to get your bowels moving. Seriously, ask a bookseller. They all have stories of toilet terrors.) She’d been the Assistant Manager for 3 years now and still can’t figure out how that happened. This town was like a slow incoming tide. You always feel like you have more time to get out of the way but then all your stuff is wet and you’re treading water. You have to keep treading water otherwise you’ll drown. Clogged toilets, Christmas music in March, and now (like a cherry on a shit sundae) it was snowing. Some days, it’s easier to tread water than others. When it snowed, Maggie wanted to drown.
By the sink, she could hear the workings of the men’s restroom on the other side of the wall. Someone was shouting in there. It was a dull, resonant sound. She couldn’t make out if it was joyous or threatening. The shouts were moving towards her so she figured the shouter was exiting the men’s room. Maggie washed her hands for a third time. Then she washed them again because it made the bile return to her stomach. As she dried her hands and steeled her nerves to resume plunging, there was a loud thud and the shouting stopped. Never a good sign. Maggie stepped outside the bathroom to check things out.
The scene outside the bathroom was not much better than the stench filled cubical. Maggie wasn’t sure what she was looking at. A large man was looming henge-like over the chair at the end of the Romance aisle. There were dark, wet spots on his clothing and a red and white wrapping on his right fore arm. He was listing to the left and oddly forward. Really oddly. His right arm rose slowly then dropped making a thwack as it connected with the chair.
No. Not the chair. Someone in the chair. Maggie could see two boots twitch on either side of the lopsided henge as its arm dropped from her sight. Thwack. (Twitch) Maggie watched the man’s arm slowly rise again. Her stomach dropped.
“Excuse me…” No response. Thwack-twitch. The sound of fist-striking-flesh caused goose-flesh to rise on Maggie. Her very skin puffing up and out, an attempt to spontaneously grow armor. She was very aware of the space between her skin and her sweater. It was a very thin space that filled quickly with the possibility of panic. Thwack-twitch. It overwhelmed the already frayed nerve at the base of her spine. The bile, having made good progress upwards, was threatening to escape. Red covered arm rises like a flag, then drops. Thwack- twitch. Red flag, thwack- twitch.
Time was behaving strangely. A woman browsing the Cooking section started screaming. The bile was at the back of Maggie’s throat now, she could taste it. It was too much. She was unconsciously shushing the screaming woman. Thwack-twitch. She just needed everything to stop. The word escaped her as a whisper, “stop.” No good. She wasn’t even listening. She tried again, more forcefully, though barely above regular speaking voice. On the third attempt her voice remembered its authority.
“STOP!” The command cut through the din and everything stopped.
Hurry down the chimney tonight…
The beating stopped. The screaming stopped. The final notes of “Santa Baby” faded out as well. They all stood there in stunned, palpable silence. Well, Maggie and the Screamer-from-Cooking stood in silence. Punch, as Maggie now thought of him, sort of leaned in silence. He swayed and braced himself on the arm of the chair containing his victim. (Whom Maggie now assigned the name Bag.) A slow drip of mystery liquid was pooling at Bag’s feet.
“What are you doing?” It seemed a reasonable request. Maggie sounded reasonable asking it.
She found herself next to the chair facing Punch, she did not remember moving. Maggie was able to see the men’s faces, or what used to be the men’s faces. They were both in rough shape. Punch, eyes glassy and heavily lidded, was clearly drunk. He’d also received some punches at some point. He swayed backward and listed farther to the left, away from Maggie as she engaged him. With effort, he opened his eyes to look at Maggie though they never really focused on her. The now mostly-red flag on his arm was leaking. Maggie realized this was blood seeping through toilet paper. He was bracing himself on the arm of the chair with his left arm. He was gasping for breath. Bag, in the chair, was really fucked up. His head was resting heavily on his right shoulder and both arms were limp in his lap. He was unconscious. Maggie suddenly hoped he was only unconscious.
“It’s ok. He’s my cousin.” Punch slurred. As if this was answer enough, he turned and raised his right hand, stumbling a bit. He braced himself on the arm of the chair almost toppling it and Bag to the floor. He over corrected and loomed dangerously close to Maggie. A small yelping noise emitted from the woman in Cooking.
“You, go to the counter and call 911.” to Maggie’s surprise, the woman nodded and hurried towards the front. Punch jumped slightly as Maggie stepped between him and Bag. Punch was struggling to remain upright and sweating profusely. He was very large. They were both very large. Maggie was increasingly aware of their combined physical presence. He was backing away from Maggie so she pressed her advantage.
“Sit over there.” She directed Punch to the end of the Fiction aisle he happened to be closest to stumbling into. He staggered into the case and slid heavily to the floor. Maggie waited until he broke eye contact with her. She addressed Punch while visually assessing Bag.
“Are you drunk? What happened to your arm? Who is this?” She was looking for any signs of life on the man in the chair. She shouted towards the front counter, “Someone bring me the first aid kit!” Punch was trying to stand.
“I don’t have to…” His response trailed off as he focused on getting his legs under himself.
“You don’t have to what?” Staring horrified at the bruises darkening on the unconscious man’s face. The victim’s eyes were swollen shut. She gingerly tried to locate a pulse with the tips of her fingers. There was blood all over him but Maggie thought this was from Punch. Drops and lines, not rivers or canyons. His skin felt weird. There was a slick and somewhat chunky substance on his throat. Puke? She didn’t want to press too hard but he was a big dude and his neck was lumpy. Lumpy. Her bile was on the rise again. There was a sour smell coming from the man in the chair. She suspected he had soiled himself. She hated that chair. Maybe we’ll finally get to replace it! Well, that’s a terrible thing to think.
“I’m leaving… I have to…” Punch was trying to move down the Fiction aisle. Where was Jones? She was still not finding a pulse but she finally saw Bag’s chest rise and fall.Not dead then. How long has this man been unconscious? Maggie exhaled and realized she had been holding her breath. She also remembered why as the smell of bodily fluids assaulted her.Punch was slurring nonsensical insults now. He was drunker than she first assessed. Where were the cops? He’d only made it a few feet before stumbling into the Romance M-S aisle only to stumble out, confused a few beats later. Where the hell does that guy think he’s going? He increased the volume of his rantings but not the coherence.
“Hey! Sit down and shut up!” She pointed to the place he’d struggled to vacate only moments before. He followed her instructions. Leaving them both momentarily stunned again.
Jones finally appeared with the first aid kit. He looked at Maggie. Then at the man in the chair. Then at the man on the floor. Then at Maggie again. His eye’s asked if she was ok. His eyebrows asked if she was responsible. Maggie rolled her eyes.
“Did you call 9-1-1?” Maggie used an antiseptic wipe from the kit to clean her hands.
“Yea, is that guy dead?” Jones’ tone was one of fascination.
“No, he’s breathing.” Maggie used another antiseptic wipe to remove the chunky bits from Bag’s neck. She placed her hand directly on his skin and pressed. Relief flooded her as she finally felt his pulse.
“He’s just a drunk assthhole!” Punch slurred as he used a shelf to push himself into a half standing position again. Thankfully with his non-bleeding left arm. A few books jumped from the shelf. He was very large and testing the structural integrity of the case. Maggie feared he would bring the whole thing down on top of himself.
“Hey!” giving Punch some epic eyebrow, “SIT!” Maggie snapped. “Let me see your arm.” She was concerned he might be entering shock.
“I’m fine. I’m leaving…” As he fell heavily to the floor again.
“When you see a cop, you can go.” The big man put his injured arm in his lap and belched wetly. He cradled his wounded arm away from Maggie like a petulant toddler. A 275lb profusely bleeding toddler.
“What happened?” Jones was not good with context clues.
“Near as I can tell, this one decided to use that one as a piñata. They may have been in the men’s room. Can you check it?” Maggie visually followed the blood trail on the floor from the chair to the men’s room. Jones nodded and went to check the restroom. Maggie noticed there were two blood trails. One between bathroom and chair, one that disappeared down the Fiction aisle.
The semi-hysterical woman came down the aisle with two firefighters and an EMS tech. The woman hovered at the edge of the cookbook section, possibly waiting for someone to take her statement. She kept saying, “I just screamed. That’s all I could do.” softly, and to no one in particular. Punch was still refusing to let Maggie get near enough to address his arm. A fireman took over and deftly removed the bloody toilet paper, dressed and wrapped it properly.
Jones returned. “It’s like a scene from Carrie in there, Mags!” He was openly staring at the EMS as they worked on the man in the chair.
“Jones…” Maggie gave him some serious eyebrow.
“Huh? Oh Right!” He moved to get cleaning supplies. Maggie moved into the aisle behind Punch so she was out of the way of the first responders. Punch rolled to his knees and tried to use the shelves to pull himself into a standing position again. He noticed Maggie and jumped slightly causing several books to fall from the shelf on the opposite aisle. He cursed under his breath and leaned heavily against the stacks. Punch was levering himself upright using the case at his back. Maggie glared at him and he dropped to the ground again muttering about scary white women. The firemen smirked at this.
Police Officers arrived as the EMS crew wheeled the victim out on a stretcher.
“Hey, cops!” Punch exclaimed almost gleefully “You said I could leave when I saw the cops!” Then, almost as a whisper, “Can I go?” Looking to Maggie.
“Yes. You can go with them.” Punch looked to the officer closest to him and said, “Thank God you’re here! She’s kinda scary.” He nodded towards Maggie. Two firemen helped him to his feet. They half-carried him to the front asking after his injuries. One asked if Maggie was responsible for them.
Maggie overheard the screamer give her statement to an officer. Her story diminished as she related it, “I heard her say something and then I noticed the man was hitting the other one in the chair…and I screamed. I screamed until she told me to stop. I guess, I really didn’t see much.” Maggie looked at the floor and the soiled chair. Another officer was taking photos. Jones returned.
“You ok Mags?”
“What? Oh, Yeah. I’m fine. Thanks for cleaning the bathroom.” Something wasn’t right. Adrenaline was messing with Maggie’s brain. Her heart rate rivaled a humming bird’s.
“I’m not cleaning that chair.” They both giggled a bit, breaking the tension. The photo cop was gone.
“Fair. Will you help me move it out back?”
Maggie gave her statement to an officer and collected copies of the paperwork to file with corporate. She requested that Punch be informed that he was 86’d from the store, for life. He assured her they would give him the message when he was sober.
“Is the other guy going to make it?” She asked. He made a non-committal gesture. They walked to the front. He asked what she had done to scare Punch. She shrugged.
Time began to return to normal as the emergency vehicles left the parking lot. The café employee’s were openly staring out the front doors, towels limp and forgotten in their hands. Charlie, the book buyer, was faux-casually pricing incoming at the very front of the counter, a strategic position. Smith and Jones had abandoned all pretense at working. They were standing in the foyer whispering animatedly with some regulars. The cashier was no where to be seen. Two people were waiting to cash out.
“Oy! Jones! Smith! Come run the registers.” Maggie yelled. The café personnel returned to wiping the tables. Charlie, continued pricing his books. Maggie filled out the communication log with the police report number. Charlie quietly asked, “What did you do to scare that guy?”
“Just being me, I guess.” They both chuckled. “Where’s Ashleigh?”
“She said she had to smoke.” Maggie made note of the time. Less than 20 minutes had past.
Jones and Smith were racing. They were always in a mostly silent competition. Smith finished first. “Hey Mags! This lady says there’s a clogged toilet in the lady’s!” Mariah Carey launched into “All I Want For Christmas” as Maggie made her way to the bathroom.
Maybe she would quit.