Short Story by Jack Bragen
In the back of my mind, I had a pang of guilt because I’d been rude to a homeless woman who’d wanted some spare change. I forced myself to dismiss it.
I took another sip of Thai iced tea and realized I was getting a full bladder. My date’s cellphone rang, and she took it from her purse.
“Hi John…” she glanced at her phone. “Stuart, my phone has just gone dead and this is an important call from overseas. Can I borrow your phone?”
It was my second date with Cheryl, and I hoped it meant I had a shot at her. I’d met her through online dating.
I handed over my phone. She scrunched her nose. I’d seen some women do that. I didn’t know if it meant anything.
“Ya know, I have to take this call outside.” She put her hand on top of mine. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to disappear with your phone — I promise!” She smiled. She picked up her purse and headed toward the front exit.
The waitress put the check on the table in front of me. “Ten minutes till closing.”
I took a credit card from my wallet and placed it on the table on top of the check. My bladder was starting to hurt. I got up and went toward the door in back.
A restaurant worker looked at me.
“Restrooms through there, right?”
He nodded his head. “Ya, ya,” he said. I realized he probably didn’t speak much English.
I went through the door and found myself in a brightly lit hallway, and there were two restrooms there. I went into the men’s room. I skipped washing my hands because I was in a hurry to get back to my date, who might have been wondering where I’d gone.
I looked at the hallway. Other than the two restroom doors, there were unmarked, white painted, heavy steel doors, one at each end of the hallway. I couldn’t remember which door led back to the restaurant. I assumed that one of the two doors probably led to the kitchen.
I was in a hurry, and I just barged through the door I thought was the correct one. Abruptly, there was no floor beneath my feet. I’d encountered about a twelve-inch drop, and as I fell, I realized that I’d gone through the wrong door. My feet hit something solid, but I’d lost my balance — and also it was completely dark.
As I fell forward, I instinctively put out my arms in front of me. I hit ground, which was an additional twelve inches down. My arms buckled, and my face hit a very hard surface. The steel door slammed shut behind me, and meanwhile, I realized my nose was probably broken. I put a hand to my face and felt the sticky mess of blood. I couldn’t see anything. The last bit of light was extinguished when the door closed.
I lay there for quite a while, stunned, and trying to assess my injuries. Unsteadily, I tried to get to my feet. Meanwhile, I heard a sound that could have been that of a deadbolt being latched. I tried harder to get to my feet, but my body wouldn’t do it. Finally, with much effort, I stood.
I got back to the door, carefully, by feeling my way up the two steps in front of it. I put my hands against the door and found a doorknob. It was locked, as I’d feared it would be. Damn!
The restaurant was most likely in the final stages of closing, and employees were probably leaving. I pounded on the door with the meaty parts of my clenched fists. I tried to yell but realized I could hardly get a sound out through my injured, blood-soaked face.
I was probably in the back alley behind the restaurant, I reasoned. Certainly, I should be able to find my way out of there.
Then, I heard them.
The rats were apparently discussing among themselves what to do about someone bigger than they that smelled of blood. I could hear their squeaks, which seemed somewhat argumentative.
Abruptly, I had the sensation of one of them running up the leg of my slacks. My reflexes were coming back, and I kicked, dislodging the rat. I stepped forward and my foot hit an object. I realized it was a metal garbage pail, the old kind made from sheet metal. For some reason I reached forward, and my hand brushed against an object. I knew from touch that I’d found a discarded golf club. The rats were probably about ready to make another try.
I grabbed the golf club and whacked it against the garbage can, making a lot of noise. And I yelled. The rats backed off.
I continued forward in the total darkness. I wondered if there were raccoons to deal with, and I hoped not. I continued on. I contacted metal bars, and I realized I had reached what was probably a gate that enclosed the trash of the restaurant.
A light came on.
It was one of those spotlights connected to a motion detector. I saw that my path out was blocked by a folding security gate, the kind made of diagonal hinged bars. On one side of the gate there was a heavy padlock. I had no hope of getting out.
The bleeding on my face was a bit less and I realized my face must’ve been caked with dried blood. I couldn’t breathe through my nose, but I could get barely enough air through my mouth. I could hear myself gasping for air.
The light went back out. I waved the golf club in the direction of the motion detector, and the spotlight came back on. I looked around. I spotted a somewhat small person in a sleeping bag just to the other side of the gate.
“Help!” It took considerable effort to speak through my injured face. Yet, I was not aware of any pain. In the back of my mind, I knew I was in shock.
The person rolled over and was snoring. I got a look at her face and realized this was the homeless woman to whom I’d been rude an hour-and-a-half earlier.
“Hey you! I need help!”
Finally, I put the golf putter partway through the bars and was just barely able to nudge her with it. She was startled awake and sat up, then scrambled out of the sleeping bag and got to her feet.
“Sorry, I can go somewhere else,” she said.
I replied, “No, ma’am, I need your help.”
She looked around, looked at me, looked at my face, and saw that I was locked into the back area and that I was injured. “Don’t worry sir. I’ll get help for you right away!”
“I can give you money. I have three hundred dollars on me.”
The woman took another look at me. “Don’t worry about it sir. You need medical attention.”
She produced an outdated cellphone and called. “Yes, this is an emergency. There is a gentleman locked inside the delivery cage in back of the Thai restaurant on Fifth Street. He’s injured and he’s going to need an ambulance. Someone has to get him out of there — maybe the manager.” She paused. “My name? I would rather remain anonymous. Okay. Thanks.”
Meanwhile, I had produced a wad of cash that I was attempting to hand to her through the bars.
“I can’t take money that has blood on it.”
I realized that some of my blood had gotten onto the cash.
“Are you sure? It is perfectly spendable.”
“Sir, you dissed me when I needed your help. My kindness cannot be bought. And, while I am not above taking your money, cash with blood on it is a curse.”
“But certainly there is something I can do to repay you.”
“That’s not how it works. This is not a business transaction; this is help.” She paused and glared at me. “The 911 operator instructed me to stay with you, and otherwise I’d bug out of here.”
Soon, police, fire, ambulance, and the restaurant manager arrived. I was let out of the delivery cage of the Thai restaurant. An E.M.T escorted me to the ambulance. I glanced over my shoulder, and police were talking to the woman who’d helped me. I was helped into the ambulance, and an E.M.T began wiping dried blood off my face with a washcloth.
I overheard, “I’m arresting you for vagrancy.”
I looked toward the open back doors of the ambulance and saw that my benefactor was being handcuffed. Abruptly, the ambulance doors were shut, blocking my view.
I said, “Tell them not to arrest her.”
The E.M.T. replied, “That’s not your or my issue. You need to get to the E.R.”
I was taken to the E.R., and was treated for a broken nose and one broken cheekbone.
Concerned family came to see me the next day. And I decided to dismiss from my mind my regrets about the woman who had saved me…