At around 4 or 4:30 you’ve got to do the bathrooms, take up all the rugs and shake them out in the lot before you sweep up all the aisles. Then you have to change the day shift’s mop water in the slop sink, sterilize the new water with bleach and rinse out the old mop head so you can get the floor all squeaky clean for the morning rush. This is the only real work you have to do on third shift, unless you consider making coffee or ringing up packs of cigarettes and coffee and fountain sodas work, which I don’t really. You can’t do this kind of thing too early in the shift because foot traffic is high until about an hour and a half after the bars close and if you wait too long, you’ll get behind because you’ll be dashing back and forth from the mop and the register so you can ring up the early morning guys.
One of the morning guys, Tom, has about the hardest hands I’ve ever touched. His change (36 cents out of a five after a pack of Malrboro Ultra Lights and a coffee refill) makes a dull pop when it hits his hand, like when you drop a quarter on vinyl flooring. Some mornings I bring my hand closer to his than I need to so my finger tips rub, for only a second, across the row of pads just below his fingers. I’m convinced that there’s no way for him to know if someone’s touching his hand unless he sees it, but Tom never sees it. He always looks me full on in my eyes and smiles before putting his change in his jeans, tipping his hat, and walking out into the near dawn ready to go to work. Tom is an ideal customer at 4 or 5 a.m. Quick, polite, quiet. No bullshit.
Noel is different.
When Noel comes in, I get caught up listening to him and then I have to bust my ass so the place looks somewhat clean before Jim comes in. Some days, I have to skip sweeping, or I’ll have to mop with old water, which Jim doesn’t like, but will usually tolerate. I don’t know what he thinks I do instead of working on those days. I don’t think he suspects I’m talking to Noel.
Noel buys a soda refill everyday. Sometimes he buys a scratch off lottery ticket, but not usually. The first time I met Noel, he told me that he’s had multiple sex change operations. “Started as a boy but I wanted to get pregnant,” Noel tells me before sucking in a mouthful of Dr. Pepper. “So I did.” The soda that’s left in the straw when he’s done sucking makes a phlegmey coughing sound as it falls back into his mug.
“Did what?” I ask.
“Had some babies,” Noel says. “Triplets the first time, but two of ‘em died and I had to hide ‘em from my daddy,” Noel smiles at the end of his lips when he says this. I don’t say anything, but I don’t wince, just stand there, looking at him, waiting.
Noel thinks for a minute, rubs his nose and then looks at me, and when I don’t say anything, he tells me that his father is still alive. So is his son, he says. “To this day my daddy just thought I had one baby, but it was triplets,” Noel says.
I ask him what he did with the other two and he thinks about it for a minute before telling me that he buried them in a cornfield. He tears up when he says this. Then he tells me about how he had another sex change, got married, and had children with his wife.
“Triplets?” I ask.
Noel says no. He looks at his watch. He’s bald, in his sixties, short torsoed, but fat with little toothpick legs that are full of dry little scabs and liver spots. He wears shorts even though it’s cold out.
Sometimes Noel comes in early, refills his soda mug three or four times and just talks. I listen.
There’s nothing else I can do when he does this. I can’t work. I won’t ask him to stop. Customers come in and out. Whenever the door rings, Noel stops and looks at me, his eyes small and deep. Trusting, almost.
Sometimes Noel changes his sex four or five times, has four or five sets of triplets. Sometimes his dad is their father, other times one from a set of previous triplets grows up and impregnates him with more triplets. Other times, he get’s stuck on twins, but he always comes back to triplets. Once I asked him if his wife knows about this. He had to look away for a minute, his bald head looking dull, like a scrubbed potato.
“She found a body once,” he tells me. “A miscarriage,” he says. He looks at me with a half-smile, his little eyes as wide as they could get. I wait, let it come to him.
“We got a pool once. Big pool. The kind that sits above the ground, you know? Got it for Christmas from my son ‘cause he knows how much his mama likes to swim and so I got it all set up on a nice warm day. First warm day of the year, but I was afraid to get in, seeing as I was pregnant.”
“Triplets,” Noel says. “They was kicking something fierce and I had already done the work of putting up the pool and I needed a rest. I also knew not to get into the water when I’m in a family way cause it’ll make me have my babies. Wife kept telling me to get in though. She’s all splashing around and having her a grand old time.” Noel put his hands out in front of him and splashed at the air, smiling his wife’s slack jawed smile.
“So I could only hold out so long and so I put on my shorts and I hopped in with her. Then after a few minutes I felt ‘em kicking in there again and I could tell that I was having a miscarriage. Didn’t want to get bleeding in the pool and so I got out.” Noel’s face made a disappointed look.
“She was disappointed about that?” I asked him. “Your wife wanted you to stay in the pool?”
“We was having a fun time,” Noel said, “but I was having baby problems so I told her I had to go.
She was closest to the ladder and so she went first and I followed right up behind her. I thought I could get out into the bathroom in time so I could rinse them down into the tub. I was sure about it, but then when I was getting out of the pool they just slipped out of me.” Noel bit down on his lower lip and blew out a little air, which made a whistling sound. “My shorts held two of them, and I thought I was safe, but one of them fell into the pool and she saw it.” Noel looked down and swallowed some saliva. Then he looked back up at me, hard this time. “She just jumped back on in and tried to save it. Nothing I could do.”
Noel stopped talking.
“What happened then?” I asked. “Was she okay?” I asked. Did she hurt herself when she jumped back into the pool?” I asked.
The sun had come up. The floors were unswept, unmopped and the pumps were beeping at me, waiting for me to hit the approve button so the morning commuters could fill up their tanks and go in to work. Noel did not answer me. I stepped over to press the green approve button. Noel excused himself to use the bathroom. Jim came in and started staring at me and then at the floor, and since Jim is a quiet person, he didn’t say anything to me, just pulled up the carpets and grabbed the broom, and then after that, the mop.
When I was about to leave for my walk home, Jim was knocking loudly on the bathroom door. Noel hadn’t left. I wondered what he was doing in there. I imagined he needed help, that he was having some problems with his pregnancy and it was hard to imagine that Jim was capable of helping him. How could you ask him to understand? After all, Jim was busy. He had other work to do. All the way home, I felt uniquely qualified to intervene, make something bad into something good, but I didn’t go back.