Early Sunday Afternoon
he soft rumble of the toilet sucks away the people, places, events, and details of her life as Nan’s iPhone slips from her pocket. It splashes into the white porcelain toilet in Airside A at Tampa International Airport and turns Nan Telvid into a woman possessed. “Son-of-a-bitch!” Nan screams as she bends at the waist, drives her hand into the toilet bowl, and tries to rescue her lifeline. Then, “Shit!” she yells as she begins kicking the pedestal of the toilet.
The four other women in the restroom freeze as if someone has just slapped them. Then they turn to face Nan’s stall. Two are at the sinks, hands dripping. One has just walked out of the stall next to Nan’s. The fourth woman clutches her lipstick as if it is a weapon. She takes a timid step forward.
Whatever is going on in stall number three sounds serious. It’s early afternoon on the first Sunday in April and every single one of these five women would rather be anywhere but in the bathroom across from the Jose Cuervo Tequileria in yet another airport. The busy terminal is a madhouse of men, women, and children coming to the beach, leaving the beach, heading back to reality after another interminable business trip, or just leaving for one. And all the women in this bathroom at this particular moment could suddenly turn vicious from the stress of simply standing still amidst the swirling masses. The now ancient joys of airplane travel, minus airport bars, have all but vanished for them.
The profane woman in the center stall obviously needs help and the brassy blonde with the lipstick in her hand makes the first move.
“Nan, what in the world is going on in there?”
The blonde clicks her lipstick shut, throws it into a purse large enough to hold a small child, and pushes her bony hip into the side of the metal door. “Nan?”
“I dropped my damn phone into the toilet and it’s wedged down there,” comes the snarl on the other side of the door. “I bet Steve Jobs never bothered to measure the width of a public toilet drain when he designed this wonderful phone,” Nan seethes.
“Open the door,” the blonde commands.
The women can hear Nan step backward, unclick the door, and then, before the blonde can move, one of the women at the sink shouts, “Nobody flush!”
The other two women move without thinking to block the other stalls in case someone new comes into the bathroom.
“I dated a commercial plumber once,” the woman at the sink shares. “He told me the suction from these public toilets could rip off my underwear if more than a few of them were flushed at the same time. My name’s Patti, by the way.”
Patti has a voice that demands attention. It’s a throaty, sexy rumble that would make even a dying man want to take off his clothes. Nan decides right away that Patti’s either a singer or has been working as a test smoker for a tobacco company most of her life. She looks like she’s pushed past sixty but she’s one of those older women who clearly gets more attractive daily. Patti the plumbing expert has on a two-piece blue suit that looks hand-stitched; whoever dyes her hair is a goddess because the specks of gray blend perfectly with her light brunette tones; her bracelets, necklace, and rings are lovely strands of gold; and there’s a funky bold scarf around her neck that says, “I’m hip but don’t push your luck, honey.”
“I’m Cathy,” the blonde says. “Do you by chance have any plumbing tools in your purse?”
“No, sweetie,” Patti answers, without blinking an eyelash. “The plumber took his tools with him when he left. And let me tell you, he didn’t need a very big bag when he packed.”
One of the women guarding two other stalls starts to laugh, just as a newcomer pushes into the restroom, sees Nan, Cathy, and Patti standing in one stall and two other women with their backs pressed flat against two of the other five stall doors, as if they are about to be frisked. The newcomer freezes. “Is this a kind of restroom theatrical play or something?” the woman at the door asks. “Can I pee in here?”
“We’re having a bit of a crisis,” the woman who’d laughed tells her. “It’s probably best if you go down the hall. There’s a bathroom right across from Sam Snead’s Grill & Tavern. They’re having a pre-boarding happy hour that I highly recommend.”
“Well, aren’t you a fun group,” the woman at the door snips as she turns away. “You five look like a bunch of fruitcakes.”
Everyone laughs but Nan. Patti peels off her jacket, hands it to Cathy, and orders someone to figure out how to block the door before another cranky woman with a full bladder tries to pop in.
“I’ll do it,” the laughing woman tells Patti. “I’m Margo.”
“That leaves me.” The fifth woman speaks so softly it’s almost impossible to hear her. “I’m Holly.”
“Nice hair,” Margo says, looking at Holly’s wispy spikes and lovely frosted tips. The curves of Holly’s hair seem to dance perfectly whenever she moves her head.
“I did it myself. I’m a hairstylist.”
“Okay, girls,” Patti announces. “Enough about the hair already. Let’s think about this. I’m a bit older than most of you but even I’m addicted to my damn cell phone, especially when I travel. Not so much when I’m not on the road, but unfortunately I travel a lot. I do have to tell you that for three cents I’d throw my phone in there. Phones are nothing but a waste of time, unless, of course, you really need one.”
Margo asks if anyone has gum or anything sticky in their purse. She yanks a piece of paper out of a notebook, scrawls Closed for Repairs on it. When Holly hands her a stick of gum, she chews it for a second, sticks it on the back of the note, and thumps it on the outside door. Margo is about as big as a large toothpick but somehow she pushes a big garbage can against the door so no one else can open it.
Holly with the perfect hair looks as if she’s spotted a dead relative. She’s trying very hard to decide what to do. She turns nervously to look at herself in the mirror and wonders how these women, all obviously older and more capable, see her. What she sees is a sort of slightly overweight woman under the age of thirty with really great hair who wouldn’t know how to fix a toilet, keep intruders out of a bathroom, or organize a bunch of unknown frequent flyers to do any or all of the above if someone held a gun to her head.
“Geez,” she mutters under her breath, not loud enough for any of the others to hear her. She’s thinking that from the looks of things each of these women has more of a life than she does. Styling hair in Aberdeen, Ohio, is probably not on any Top Ten List of career experiences. Holly darts her eyes from one woman to the next and assumes she is not just outclassed but already in over her head and she’s not even near the toilet bowl.
“Hey,” Patti says, turning to look at Holly. “Can you hold the stall door open while Margo there guards the garbage can?”
Holly obediently pushes her weight against the door. Patti is now standing in front of the toilet, hands on hips, looking exactly as if she’d pee like a man if she had the proper equipment. Nan is to her right, hands dripping toilet water and red in the face from panic and anger. Cathy straddles the bowl. Holly can now see why the poor woman who’d simply wanted to go to the bathroom looked so terrified.
“You two know each other?” Patti asks, looking from Cathy to Nan.
“Kind of,” Cathy answers. “I’ve actually met Nan’s husband through work. I was just throwing down some wine at the bar across the hall and there was Nan, sitting right next to me.”
“We just started talking—you know, about what a small world it is and stuff like that,” Nan adds impatiently. “What about my phone?”
“So you don’t know if Nan here regularly drops her phones into the toilet?” Patti cannot help herself. She breaks out into a huge smile.
“That’s a stupid question.” Nan is now clearly even more irritated.
Margo momentarily moves away from her trash can–guarding duties. She tells Nan it’s not really a stupid question because she herself happens to have three teenagers and she washes their iPods and phones and other electronic devices all the time.
Patti looks at her and ignores the part about her washing her electronics.
“Three teenagers? Are you serious? I hope you were at the bar too.”
Margo informs Patti she was down the hall at Snead’s, throwing back gin and tonics. It wasn’t so much because of the teenagers, she shares, as it is the six days she just spent visiting her parents in their trailer park community, her father’s inability not to fall down every two hours, and the fact that even though Margo’s pushing forty her mother showed her how to vacuum and put dishes properly into the dishwasher every damn day she was visiting. Not to mention the number of times she was almost killed by bald men driving golf carts.
“Am I the only one who wasn’t at a bar?” Holly asks bravely in her whisper-thin voice.
“I was on my way there when I made this unfortunate pit stop,” Patti confesses. “Let’s get back to the phone here, sugar. If we do get it out of the toilet, it probably won’t work, unless you have a freezer or an oven handy. One of those is supposed to fix a wet phone, but I can never remember which. I just throw my cell away when this happens to me.”
Margo then announces that she has figured out you can wash a variety of cell phones and iPods four times before they quit working, because she’s done that with numerous devices. She says she’s afraid to tell Apple, for fear they’ll make the iPod less waterproof.
“Grab us some paper towels,” Patti orders Margo, ignoring the phone-washing update. “Girls, I think we should try and get that damn thing out of there for Nan. I’ve read where some phones survive even in the ocean. Is there good stuff on that phone, Nan?”
Nan opens her eyes as wide as saucers. She raises up her hands, spreads her fingers. She looks half-crazy.
“I’m in banking,” she tells the other women. “Investments. I have clients all over the country. Do not ask me if I backed everything up yesterday or the day before, when I was in so many meetings I wanted to puke. It’s not life-or-death down there,” she says, moving her head in the direction of the submerged phone, “but if there’s a chance we can save it, I’m going back in. And besides, I hate to give up, you know?”
Holly wonders if she should say something. After Nan the banker’s words, the other women have all grown quiet—probably thinking about their lost investments during the past few years, through the fall and rise and fall and finally the rise yet again of the economy. Leaning against the stall door, Holly feels like a money virgin. The economic mess didn’t affect her too much because she’s never had anything to affect. When the economy hit bottom, her clients would have sold their husband’s last pair of shoes so they could still come in for their cuts and colors. And Holly’s one-bedroom condo could probably fit inside of Nan’s car. Leftover money in the bank or for buying stocks and bonds? Aberdeen is not exactly the high-tipping capital of the world.
What she really wants to say is, “It’s a phone, for pity’s sake! Yank it out, flush it down, let me have a go at it with one of my hairbrushes, or call a plumber—but it’s just a phone.”
But she’s silent. Patti appears to be the one who’s in charge of phone wrangling and Holly’s a little afraid of this stranger with her gravelly voice and bossy manner. Holly would never have the courage, she knew, to drink alone at an airport bar. Tomorrow she’d be right back in flipping Ohio chopping hair and begging a client to try a new hairstyle after having the same bangs for twenty-five years. Why in the hell couldn’t she break out of her own airport routine and go to a bar alone?
Patti finally breaks the spell by saying, “Girls, should we flush Banker Nan?”
“Let’s take a vote,” Margo pipes up, clearly feeling the effects of her trip to the happy hour bar.
Cathy, still straddling the toilet, doesn’t move.
Nan sucks in her breath. She is about to let all four of them have it when Patti leans toward her, jabs her shoulder, and tells her she’s just kidding. Investment jokes are already passé, she assures Nan, what with those Obama kids now loping toward adolescence, the rebirth of the stock market, and people realizing it’s just as much fun to read or go to a state park as it is to buy one more damn telephone or fly to Paris.
Despite Patti’s pseudo apology, Nan snaps. She suddenly pushes Patti aside and plunges her hands into the toilet again, trying not to think about who may have been in this particular stall just before her. Water splashes onto her arms, drips down the side of the toilet, and creeps toward her expensive leather high heels. She gags and backs up.
Patti starts laughing.
“It’s clean water, really,” Patti snorts. “The inside of your mouth is probably dirtier, honey.”
Margo starts to laugh too and so, to her own surprise, does Holly. Cathy decides to side with Nan and says she gives her barmate credit for at least trying. “Give her a break, people,” Cathy barks. “I think the shoes cost more than the phone.”
Patti has on lovely well-built but trendy open-toe shoes, Margo is wearing dark green cork-soled sandals even though she knows her feet will freeze when she gets off the plane in frozen Wisconsin. Holly has on her traveling Nikes.
Patti has an idea, but now she wants to see what the big shot with the fancy shoes and the skinny-ass and very fit blonde who looks like a hip version of a woman she once met in Hollywood (who turned out to be a classy hooker) can contribute to this phone retrieval ceremony.
“What did you say you did again?” Patti asks Cathy.
“I didn’t say. But I work for Wendy’s.”
“Wendy’s? The fast-food Wendy’s?” Holly asks, thinking Cathy absolutely does not look like a Wendy’s kind of gal.
“I’m upper-level management. Development and special events.”
“I’ll bet you are,” Patti mutters as she puts her hands on her hips.
“What the hell does that mean?” Cathy is clearly offended.
Margo’s thinking. She still has more than an hour before her flight boards. That could mean at least two more gin and tonics, and instead here she is, in a women’s restroom with a bunch of strangers, arguing about how to help some brassy chick get her phone out of a toilet.
“This looks like a scene from a sitcom, for heaven’s sake,” Margo says, loud enough to get their attention. “Everyone but Holly seems to be just the other side of tense. Looks to me like we are all just trying to help. Does anyone have an idea about getting the phone out of that toilet so we can get back to our lives and I can go back to the bar before I have to get on the damn airplane?”
Nan suggests they take a few minutes, just for the hell of it, to see if there’s anything, like maybe a hanger, in one of their carry-on bags that she can use to leverage the phone out of its watery nesting spot.
Excerpted from Hearts on a String by Kris Radish. Copyright © 2010 by Kris Radish. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.