During college I worked at CVS with a guy named Joe who always felt like he was about to throw up. Since he was too scared to go to the doctor to get himself checked out, Joe worked each shift with a nauseous grimace plastered to his thin face, with rivulets of shiny sweat scudding down his chalk-white forehead.
Whenever a customer told him he’d feel better if he stuck a finger down his throat and got it over with, he always had the same response:
“I know it’s not a very manly thing to say, but I’m too afraid to do that. I haven’t thrown up in almost fourteen years, and I still remember how terrible it is.”
A few days before my final shift at the store, Joe walked into the break room and asked me for a favor. Fat tears quivered in the corners of his red eyes, and his face was the same color as the blank white wall behind him.
“I can’t do this anymore, Robbie,” Joe said, his voice pinched and thin, his hands resting lightly on his stomach, his upper body hunched into a shape that reminded me of the number six. “I’d rather drop dead than feel like this for another minute. I’m twenty-seven years old for fucks sake, and I’ve lived half my life cowering in fear of this shit.” He pointed to his stomach with both hands. “It has to end. I can’t do it anymore. I need you to punch me in the stomach as hard as you can.”
In the four years I’d been here, I’d seen first-hand what a stand-up guy Joe was. He always covered my shifts whenever I got drunk the night before work and had to call out, and he always went the extra mile to help every single customer, even the really obnoxious ones who demanded to talk to the manager over an expired thirty-five-cent coupon. On top of that, he never missed work himself, despite his mysterious condition.
So I agreed to help him out. It was the least I could do for a good friend who’d covered my ass dozens of times in the past.
Since we still had another fifteen minutes left in our break, me and Joe went into the employee bathroom, propped open the door of the handicap stall, and lifted the toilet seat. Joe stood beside the toilet and closed his eyes. Though he had promised to keep his hands in his pockets during the punch, they quickly crept up his torso and settled at the base of his throat, as if anticipating the unpleasantness to come. With my back to the wall, I drew in a slow breath and smelled the astringent bite of fresh bleach, the earthy memory of old farts.
“You ready?” I said.
Joe swallowed hard and gave me a slight nod.
“Okay. You got this, man,” I said. “This shit has nothing on you. Just think of how great you’re going to feel when it’s finally over.”
I set my feet shoulder-width apart and raised my hands to my chin. Sensing my movement, Joe’s face crunched into a terrified scowl. His body began to tremble.
“Three,” I said, lowering my right fist and rotating at the hips. “Two—”
“Stop, stop!” Joe said, his body curling away from me like a strip of paper being eaten by a flame. “Jesus Christ! Goddamnit! I can’t do it. I’m so sorry man, but I can’t do it. I don’t care if I have to feel like this for the rest of my life, I just—fuck. I give up. I’m sorry, man. It’s too much for me. I just can’t do it.”
Joe sat down on the cold tile floor and rested the back of his head against the metal partition of the stall. Neither of us said anything for a while. Then I checked the time on my phone and showed it to him. We had two minutes left in our break.
“Well, you were right about one thing,” he said, tearing off a long tongue of toilet paper and dabbing the sweat from his forehead. “Somehow I actually do feel a little bit better about everything now. So thanks a lot for helping me out with this, Robbie. You’re a good dude. This place is going to be pretty boring without you.”
“Thanks, man,” I said, offering him my hand. “I can’t say I’m going to miss this place, but it does suck that we won’t get to hangout anymore.”
“Yeah,” he said, grabbing my hand and carefully pulling himself to his feet with a groan. “But it is what it is. You’re graduating in what, three days? I can’t expect you to keep working here after that.”
After a short silence, Joe thumped me on the shoulder with his sweaty hand.
“Alright, let’s get out of here.”
He mopped his milk-white forehead one last time and dropped the fat ball of toilet paper into the toilet. Then he stepped back and kicked the silver handle behind the bowl. The water roared into the pipe and sucked the floating ball away.
Steve Gergley is a writer and runner based in Warwick, New York. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Cleaver Magazine, Hobart, Pithead Chapel, After the Pause, Barren Magazine, and others. In addition to writing fiction, he has composed and recorded five albums of original music. His fiction can be found at: https://stevegergleyauthor.wordpress.com/.