Bruce and the Toilet Paper Ballad — David Travis Bland
Bruce awoke, rising from his arms’ cradle as the manager showed up behind the bar and stopped in front of him. She waited for the bartender to come up from putting beers in the cooler.
“Do you think,” the manager said, “you could go get some toilet paper for the women’s bathroom?”
“Steal some from the men’s,” the bartender said. “I’m busy as fuck. It wasn’t like this yesterday.”
“A lot can change in a day.”
That woke Bruce up. A day? The bartender twisted around, unloading liquor onto the shelves of the barback.
“The key thing’s broke. Can’t get to it. Everyone else’s got tables. We’re one of the few places with alcohol still. I would, but I gotta go get my kid, like now, before it all starts.”
The manager took out a twenty and tried to hand it over.
“You see how many drinks’re coming in?”
Smacking the money on the cooler, she walked away. The bartender sucked her teeth, shook her head. An idea lifted Bruce from the depths of happy hour, an idea that could get his girlfriend back.
“I can get it.”
“You sure? You’ve been asleep since, like, yesterday about this time.”
“I have? The fuck?”
“We were open all night, so we just let you stay there. Things got crazy since last night’s announcement. So, well, you sure you can go?”
“I’m good. What announcement?”
“Come on,” she said. “Go if you’re going.”
He felt a purpose beyond the days wages and the tug and shrug of porn after his early evening inebriation—his almost daily routine since his ex broke up with him, kicking him out after his final act of asking are you on your period or something? Later, she explained the wrongness of his question and his constant use of the word “tits,” the groping of her ass. But your ass is hot he’d said. That’s what got him to the point of believing that supplying the commode accoutrement for the dignity of females held the prospect of redemption. She slid the money over the bar.
Outside, the streets were dead—no people—not like inside where people acted as if getting battle drunk. Cars looked freshly abandoned. Along the crosswalk, a paper tumbled and stopped against his shoe. He picked the sheet up. Emblazoned on it was a single word—MARCH—signed with the circle and cross female symbol. He let it go back to the wind.
The Walgreens was around the corner and he found the toilet paper aisle. The shelves were bare, nothing but a lonely ply to hint at what transpired.
“Are you out of toilet paper?” he said to the cashier.
Hiding away his bowie knife from cleaning his grey nails, the clerk leaned against the counter, putting his glass eye forward. “The wimmens cleaned us out,” he said, stroking the twisted hairs that extended from his chin. “I’m figurin’ they plan on soilin’ it with their blood. Tossing red streaks across the lines.”
“Gotcha,” Bruce said, his standard response when he didn’t understand.
The clerk leaned further over the counter.
“Keep an eye out about ya out there,” pulling the knife up and tapping his glass replacement. His lips broke into a rotten-toothed smile. “And thank ye for comin’ to Walgreens.”
Bruce went out the door. The sidewalk trembled like a buffalo herd stampeded in the distance. He looked to his feet, saw the minute vibration of his shoelaces. No time for contemplation, a helpless woman might be crying at the plight of her tissue-bound sex. Vying for the grocery store, he made it to his conversion van, the Great Fish he called it for its silver body and whale like head from its raised roof as well as from the weeks of living in the beast’s belly. Wrenching open the door to a cascade of soda cans and noodle cups, he peeled off.
A few blocks away he arrived at the Food Lion. In the parking lot he found more abandonment, the connected pet supply store left to the devices of the animals. They had escaped, guinea pigs zipping out the cleft door, sniffing the air on their hind legs and choosing to scurry back rather than face the world’s strangeness. Lizards sunned on the concrete while frogs hopped into the parking lot in a coda of world domination amongst their ranks. A snake slithered up the storefront window. Bruce made a box around his face and leaned into the glass of the Food Lion—no lights, no people, a locked door.
“Damn,” he said, a swell of desperation rising.
He gritted his teeth at what to do. The Piggly Wiggly would be closed too, other drugstores sold out, and Whole Foods was out the question, the toilet paper laden with tree shavings, too expensive, and not industrially sized enough. He couldn’t disappoint. He needed to succeed. He couldn’t think of the last thing he’d consider a win for himself except getting his job by beating out the chick his boss didn’t like. Wasn’t hot enough and didn’t need any more crazy hormones around the place the supervisor said after giving Bruce the job. But what the fuck did a job matter if you couldn’t buy toilet paper? What if his ex was in that stall about to squish her panties up in shame and disgust. He hit the glass with the ball of his fist.
“Fuck,” he cried out, squeezing the pain from his hand beneath his armpit.
Publix grocery story hit his brain with hope. A higher-class establishment, it was in their name—they served the public and definitely would be open.
He tore through the plagued parking lot, squishing a frog on his way out. It was two quick turns then a straight shot to the bourgeois supermarket. Careening through the first curve, he came to a road block, cops and barriers.
“Shit on my dick,” he yelled, the law staring back like he was a stray dog. “The shit is this?”
He reversed back into the main thoroughfare, slammed the gas toward a detour, twisting through the streets with the pillowy, plied salvation groping at his frustration. A light stopped him. He tried to mind-fuck it into changing.
“Come on, son of a bitch, come on.”
But his fevered anger was distracted by the rumble of the street again. He swore he heard voices amongst the shaking. He leaned into his windshield, looking in the direction of the ruckus. On a street corner amongst the desolation stood the girl, the girl he’d beaten out of a job, bare-chested with blood red handprints dripping down her breast, face painted like a pixie warrior, holding a sign above her head. Which side are you on? it said. The light changed and he gunned it.
A turn later he was blocked again and befuddled by what stopped him—a six-foot-high dam of brassieres and girdles flecked with razor heads, spent antiperspirant tubes, and douches across the entire street. Horror rose in him, ugly desperation. He screamed aloud, jerking toward every intersection, all of them blocked by orange and white barriers. He felt the anger of failure in his heart, knowing he’d never get his ex back.
Then he whipped the Great Fish around with a thought—the building where he worked, the janitor’s closet, his last hope. The front end reared like the Great Fish was about to breach.
The building’s security guard was slumped by the door, weeping into his knees.
“It’s all over,” he said. “This world’s got us good this time. Ain’t gonna be no more.”
“No time, Jerry,” Bruce said, sprinting through the exit. “Got shit going on,” his arms brimming with toilet paper rolls as he ran back to the Great Fish, the tissue streaming around him like the glory of a victory flag.
He dropped the mountain of rolls in the passenger seat. All the crossroads were barricaded during his time inside except for one artery straight through the heart of town—Main Street. He raced up the two-lane way, traffic lights flashing heedless caution until he could see the State House dome rising in his sight, breaking up from the horizon and the outlet into which his path intersected. He knew he’d make it; he’d win back his ex.
The road barrier floated down from the sky attached to cables and a helicopter, dropping straight into Bruce’s path a block in front of his freedom. An eleven-man riot squad marched from the flanking streets to finish the blockade, facing Bruce with batons across their chests. He came up on them, the unit leader stepping forward with a halt gesture. The streets rumbled like the massive herd was upon him, unseen voices shouting like armies of Gauls, all the roadblocks mocking his inability to deliver the sacred paper.
“Gonna need you to wait here, sir, ‘til things are done,” the riot officer said into Bruce’s window.
“‘Til what’s done? The fuck’s going on?” cursing the barriers with vengeful articulations of his limbs.
“Stand off of the Men’s and Women’s Marches. Set for some heat likes of which we ain’t seen in fifty years. A lot on the line.”
He resigned his head to the helm of the Great Fish, the ground tremors swelling.
“Just gonna need you to stay here ‘til this mess is over. Park over there if you don’t mind.”
Like he’d been drained of blood, Bruce rolled the Great Fish to the designated place around the corner of a highrise. The riot squad faced the plain of the open street, the buildings surrounding it cutting off the view of the east and west turns at Main Street’s head where the State House, its copper dome and Corinthian columns, loomed over the silence that fell in the intersection of the three directions. A traffic light swayed in the breeze, glowing red.
The Great Fish emerged from the corner, slinging its rear toward the line of riot police. They leapt for their lives as Bruce smashed through the wooden barriers like he had unleashed the tail of his beast upon a ship, splinters soaring through the air as he jetted in reverse toward the empty intersection. The light turned green as he swerved, skidding sideways into the crossroads.
A sea of men filled the street in front of him. In his rearview, women amassed in a gathering of many thousands. Both sides roared, raising their arms as if they wanted to pierce the sky. He sat in the divide, a sea of fury coming against a wall of rancor. The males clothed themselves like soldiers of every war—men in Confederate gray, doughboys, uniforms abounding, while others wore seersucker and snarled with tobacco stained teeth, and yet more were in business suits and horn-rimmed glasses. The women, with equal veracity, had clad themselves in skins like the Amazons of ancient myth, and Rosie the Riveters, Big Mama Thorntons, and flappers, all their faces bearing the warrior-like marks of the girl he saw bare-chested on the street corner.
His phone rang—his ex.
“Is that you.”
“Yeah,” he said, turning to the back glass. He saw her waving above the crowd.
“You have to come over to our side. It’s for the Supreme Court, this fight. Listen if you come over we can get back together. I . . . I . . . I love . . .”
He hung up on her.
In the mass of men he saw his father, and at his side was a young boy—a boy Bruce knew well. His father raised his fist, whipped himself across the chest and shouted in anger. The boy was trapped and scared by the rancor of men surrounding him. He grabbed his father’s hand. He stared through the crowd to Bruce.
The two armies marching in on each other, Bruce in the middle, he took aim at his child self. He knew then that killing himself was the only way forward, to be rid of everything that was passed down to him. He stroked the gear shift and pressed the first seep of gas into the churning guts of the Great Fish. It roared forward and at that moment arching through the sky, leading his path ahead, streaked a flaming roll of toilet paper.