Blake hated lying to his mother, but admitting that he’d dropped his phone in the toilet was too much to bear.
He sprawled himself out on the couch, waiting for her to come home. He tried to formulate an excuse, something to explain away his water-logged cell phone, but memories of the day’s events were too vivid; there was no room left in his brain for even the tiniest fib.
His first day at work began slowly. In fact, Blake was so bored during those first few hours at Food Lion that he couldn’t even wait until his half-hour break to investigate the restroom.
There was little to say for the space. Blake was a connoisseur of public restrooms, but the décor and atmosphere there was so bland that even he had a hard time critiquing it. Blake loved grading bathrooms. He made a point of visiting the restroom wherever he was, if only to lock himself in a stall and examine his surroundings. He had a rigorous grading scale; rarely did a bathroom qualify as A-grade, and even for a B, it needed well-stocked toilet paper and soap and an adequate number of urinals.
His most recent undertaking was, thankfully, clean and well-lit, automatically boosting it to C status. From the neutral tile walls to the generic-scented soap, however, Blake couldn’t identify anything in the room that gave it life. There were no amusing Employees Must Wash Hands Signs, no soothing music cooing from above. The bathroom had no character, and until he examined the first stall, Blake was convinced that the restroom s at his new place of employment were as disappointing as the job itself.
Blake hadn’t earned his BA in German and communications with the intention of becoming general manager of his hometown grocery store. He spent his senior year at school pretending he didn’t care what he did when he graduated, ignoring his mother’s vow to boot him out of their cheery suburban split-level as soon as he got his degree. Not that she was serious, of course. Lynette loved her son in a coddling, bear-hugging way. She knew that, no matter her assertions to the contrary, she wanted Blake near home; Blake knew it, too.
Even now, after Blake had spent the summer staining her couch cushions orange from cheese curls and spending her money on pay-per-view movies, Lynette coddled her only child.
“Morning, Boo Boy,” she’d say, arranging a box of Lucky Charms, milk carton, and cereal bowl out on the kitchen table.
“Yeah, morning,” Blake answered. Before she bustled off to her early-bird Pilates class, Lynette gave him a swift peck on the forehead. Although he only acknowledged it with an eye-roll or grunt, Lynette never forgot to kiss her son goodbye each morning.
Three-and-a-half-months after graduating and moving back in with his mother, Blake started applying for the types of jobs he vowed never to seek upon entering college.
His first day monitoring nine rows of minimum-wage workers was, as anticipated, a droll compared to the bar-hopping fantasies he’d once entertained about adult life. It was a Tuesday afternoon; customers were rare, the looping music constantly interrupted for shameless self-advertising. His employees pretended to stay busy wiping down their registers and rearranging packets of gum whenever he passed, and despite his best efforts to appear cheery and laid-back, he knew he was already labeled the enemy.
He slipped into the bathroom as soon as possible.
He was there for purely recreational purposes; he never used public facilities if he could avoid it, especially at work. As part of his grading system, however, he always tested the toilet paper for appropriate comfort and flushed the toilet for a demo-run. (Automatic toilets immediately downgraded bathrooms a half-level; there was something innately disturbing in technology that determined when he was done taking a shit, Blake thought)
He surveyed the line of stalls, peeking beneath for feet and checking which, if any, locks were broken; he finally settled on the second. After comfortably seating himself on the toilet, he was pleased to see a gallery of tastefully designed obscenities scribbled on the mint-green door.
Blake had a great appreciation for bathroom stall graffiti. He considered it an art form, each a unique signature of the bare asses that had once occupied the space.
Today, he was especially delighted to find a conversation, each line in different hand, volleying insults and vulgarities back and forth.
“RH shat here” it began in a proud, looping hand, followed by “Who the fuck cares,” “dude, gross,” and, to Blake’s disgusted delight, “TL wacked off her.”
Beneath this last boast was, lightly scratched into the thin paint, “555-8459 for more fun TL.”
This was Blake’s second encounter with phone numbers on bathroom walls. The first happened during his sophomore year at a rest stop in Ohio. He’d sat on the toilet, phone in hand, for at least 15 minutes before, terrified of where the call might lead, nerves overcame his curiosity and he left without grading the bathroom.
A few days later, police identified the rest stop as a major sex trafficking area; the potentiality in that missed phone call had haunted Blake ever since.
He checked his watch; it would be at least a few more minutes before anyone would notice the manager had abandoned post. Plenty of time for a phone call.
He entered the jagged numbers into his phone before his common sense took control.
A voice breathed into his ear a brief ring later: “You’ve reached the Hotties Hotline. This is Theresa.”
“Um, hi Theresa.”
“Would you like me to review our pay rates before we begin?”
“I guess not, no.”
“Eager, aren’t we?”
The woman’s voice was at least an octave deeper than Blake’s, and it sounded as if she were dragging the words out and into the phone. The fakeness in her voice didn’t bother Blake in the least; the drawling slowness of her words was comforting in a somewhat homey way.
“Well, I told you my name. You gonna return the favor?”
Blake thought about this. Usually, he enjoyed fibbing, spooling impromptu stories out of his imagination. He loved filling out survey cards at restaurants with made-up names and addresses, and he was often told that, if it weren’t for his paralyzing stage fright, he would make a tremendous actor. But for some reason, today, he didn’t want to lie. He couldn’t bring himself to lie to this smooth, strange voice.
“It’s Blake. My name’s Blake.”
“Well then, Boo Boy, tell me a bit about yourself.”
Blake didn’t have to hang up.
His mother’s voice fizzled into silence as his phone slipped out of his hand, between his knees, and into the toilet water below.