We’re just a couple of weeks from my favorite holiday—Halloween! What follows is something to get you in the mood, especially if you’ve ever harbored concerns about the cleanliness or safety of those rest stop bathrooms…
I think most of us have been there. You’re on that road trip, and suddenly you feel it, that undeniable call that tells you that you shouldn’t have eaten Mexican at that little restaurant off the interstate. But those little places, the ones crowded by locals, away from the factory fast food, are always the best, you’d said. But this place hadn’t been crowded by locals and it was small and dingy and—
Ahead, you can just make out the sign—Rest Stop—and you hit the gas. Only a mile now, but a mile is forever, with your stomach cramping and your colon threatening to explode. And of course, you’re not alone. The children are crying and your wife is in a panic at your behavior. You can’t help it. As much as you would like to calm them, one thing and one thing only demands your complete and undivided attention.
Almost there now. You scream down the off-ramp and almost miss the turn into the Cars Only parking lot. Finally, safely in a parking slot, you turn off the car, grab the keys, and bolt out the door. Your wife’s pleas for help taking the children to the bathroom echo behind you, ignored. Your entire gastric system is redlining, how could you possibly stop?
Up the sidewalk, each step filled with pain. Up the steps and through the doors, then you stop. One side of the bathroom is closed for construction. The other side—mercifully, there is another side—and you pull the door open.
The entrance is blocked by a man with a shirt that proclaims in large red letters, “Go Dawgs!”. You can barely see past him to the sinks and urinals. There is a line of five men ahead of you. you can also see that of the six toilet stalls, only one is operational. The other five have large Out-of-Order signs on them.
You curse under your breath as rivulets of sweat flow down your face, and you have the growing fear that if you don’t get to the toilet soon, the toilet it may be a moot point. You may have a greater need of a shower than a toilet.
But you wait, you have no choice. And you wait. And other men join the queue behind you, as the ones nearest the stall begin to grumble. Their anger is palpable. There are suggestions that the man in the stall must be reading a book, War and Peace, perhaps?
Then it happens, knuckles against the stall door. No response. Another rap on the door, this time more insistent. It is answered by a terrible groan and a disgusting gurgling sound, like words stifled by some liquid. But not water, you think, something other than water, thicker. But there has been no sign or sound of vomiting.
It is obvious something is wrong here, and the men in line are actively trying to determine their options—go up the road, go outside, break open the other stalls? A few made their decision and walked out, while others stood their ground.
And you think to yourself, maybe someone needs find out if that guy is alright. Maybe someone should call 9-1-1.
“There must be someone here who can check on this guy, don’tcha think?” asked one of the men. Someone said they’d go check, and disappeared into the night.
“Christ, what’s that smell?” asked another. There had been an odor when you first walked in, but there’s always an odor in rest stop bathrooms.
From behind you, from beyond the door, comes a woman’s voice. You can’t see her, but her voice is tremulous and old and filled with concern. You catch a few words.
“William,” she shouts, “are you still in there?”
A man intervenes. She explains that William is her husband and that he has been gone a long time. She wants to make sure that he is okay.
You hear the name and shout out, “William, are you okay?” No response beyond the groaning now.
“He’s not well,” she says. “He needs a doc—“ Then she collapses. You can’t see it, but you can hear her fall and the scurry of footsteps around her.
“We need to open that door,” you say. “There’s a sick man inside.” The rush of adrenaline has temporarily relieved the pain in your stomach.
Now a man pulls himself up to look over the stall door. He falls back, deadly pale, and runs out the door. A few others quickly follow him, but three stalwarts tear at the door until they can break it in. When they do, their eyes grow large and their faces pale and full of terror. Even so, you approach to witness their discovery. And what they have discovered is death.
Upon the toilet, his pants around his ankles and his shirt stained with blood, is an old, gray, black man—his skin ashen, his eyes filled with blood and protruding. Upon his arms and face are festering wounds, oozing a nasty, dark puss. And now, the problem of a leaking anus is the least of your concerns, because you realize that now all the stalls are occupied.
You run past the men waiting, past William’s wife, dying on the sidewalk, and to the sanctuary of your car, where your wife has been waiting not-so-patiently.
“What was that all about,” she asks.
“Nothing,” you say, “the stalls were all full.” And you drive off into the night, without giving further thought to the uncomfortable gurgling sensation in your lungs or the patches of dry skin, gray and broken and never seeming to heal.
© Copyright 2017 by Kevin Fraleigh