It was a sweltering, humid day in Gilman, Illinois as Cole and I hauled the truck around to the front of the building and pulled the line on the motor. The gigantic, oil-stained engine on the trailer roared to life, vibrating and screeching and chuffing out clouds of black smoke, and after hooking the machine up to nearest water source, one of us—I can’t remember which—untangled the rubber hose from its crank, slid a finger through the trigger on the nozzle, and dragged it through the glass doors.
Nobody asked what we were doing. Nobody stopped us. We moseyed unmolested down the short hallway in slow-motion, Reservoir Dogs-style, and kicked open the bathroom door.
Then we pulled the trigger, and a laser stream of high-pressure water exploded from the barrel in a cloud of mist. The carnage had begun.
Cole and I both consider ourselves gentle people by nature, but we can only take so much. Everyone has their breaking point. Ours came at the exact same moment on that hot day in the summer of 2003.
As a 21-year-old college student home for a few months and desperate for summer employment, I took the first thing available to me: a wretched job working for the devil himself. Our boss, a man-troll named Danny, oozed evil. His red, leathery skin and straw-colored hair complemented his deep, raspy voice and menacing claws. If you’re imagining the villain from a child’s storybook, you’re not wrong. I have no evidence to refute the possibility that he lived under a bridge.
The job essentially entailed Danny sending my friend Cole and me out to various gas stations across Central Illinois to complete crappy upkeep tasks like power-washing diesel fuel off of mucky pumps or shoveling the sludgement out of filthy car wash basins. The company we worked for owned several stations, and it was our job to do all the horrible stuff even the minimum wage-earning teenagers employed at these buildings wouldn’t do.
One of his assignments sent us to a truck stop in Gilman for an unreasonable amount of time. Truck stops are notoriously gross, so our long list of ridiculous tasks to complete—painting rails, power-washing pumps, wiping down the underside of the canopy, and picking up trash in the giant truck parking lot behind the building—did not exactly get my tail wagging.
However, after days and days of drudgery, we finally got everything on the list completed. Sunburned, crabby, and muddied with a sandpapery combination of suntan lotion and dirt specks, we thought we’d head home an hour early our last day there after having spent a week making the place sparkle. We’d had more than our fair share of that place, so we packed our things and went to let the store manager know we were heading out.
But Gilman’s slumping, middle-aged female manager, a fellow troll-person probably spawned asexually from Danny’s armpit in some ancient ceremony, decided she’d like to keep us busy until the work day was over. No, we couldn’t leave yet. She had one more job for us to do.
She wanted us to clean the bathrooms.
In a truck stop.
“No,” we said, trembling with something in between rage and fear. “That’s not our responsibility.”
Rather than argue, she picked up the phone without breaking eye contact with us and dialed Demon Danny. “Your boys are done a little early,” she said with a smug smile on her face. “Can I keep them busy for this last hour?”
Danny couldn’t have cared less what we did with the last hour of day, so he assented, much to our chagrin. Acid burbled in the depths of my gut. We were going to have to clean those damn bathrooms. There was no way around it.
Manager Troll fetched us all the necessary supplies: yellow rubber gloves, cleaning chemicals, and a red bucket full of industrial-strength sponges. For a moment after she left us, we stood there in silence, staring at the closed door to the men’s room. I silently imagined the types of men who went number two in the toilets lying behind that door—giant men with hairy stomachs and scuffed leather boots, their food-stained denim overalls lying in a puddle around their ankles as they did their business.
We did not, under any circumstances, want to do this.
When we finally walked into the room, I lifted my hand to my mouth and nose in a futile attempt to keep the stench at bay. The walls were grimy, the ceiling tiles were an odd shade of golden-brown, and splotches of ricocheted hand grease splayed three feet away from the faucet in every direction. A black light in there would’ve lit up like the Fourth of July.
“Oh, hell no,” Cole said. We immediately marched to the manager and said, “We’re not cleaning those restrooms. They’re disgusting.”
We felt pretty proud of ourselves for standing up for what is good and just, but we should’ve known it wouldn’t be that easy.
“You heard what Danny said. You’re going to do what I tell you to do. Do I need to call him again, or are you going to get to work?”
Cole and I aren’t usually spiteful, but we are creative. On the back of our F-150 we had a trailer to haul around our industrial strength power-washer for cleaning off the diesel pumps. This thing was powerful, friends. Strong enough to strip the chrome off a bumper. During training, Danny told us not to put our hands in the line of fire if we valued our finger flesh. He warned us it could cut through muscle and right down to the bone. This piece of machinery was no joke.
In our heads, we must have truly believed there was only one way to clean a bathroom that disgusting because I don’t remember us even talking about it. It’s like we blacked out for a few minutes, and next thing we knew our truck was at the entrance nearest the bathrooms, close enough for the hose and spray gun to reach inside.
We could feel the rumble and smell the exhaust throughout the store. One of us kicked open the door like the police, the power washer nozzle straight up in the air, hissing with the built-up pressure of the water being forced through the hose and just begging for release. We smiled at each other, knowing full well that we could end up fired for this. But it didn’t matter at that point. We had made our decision. If we had sunglasses to flip down coolly off of our foreheads, we totally would’ve done it.
Then, we power-washed the living bejezzus out of that festering, disease-riddled facility like the prize for doing so was entrance into heaven. Grime leaked down the walls and poo mist swirled all over the room. Steam filled up the entire area and the walls started to condense. After three or four good minutes of spraying the hell out of that restroom, we stopped to let the smoke clear.
White swaths of cleaned wall cut long, circular strips into the yellowy-brown membrane left behind—the work of incredibly powerful hot water and many, many PSIs of water pressure. After a haze of furious spraying, the room looked 70 percent cleaner but sat atop an inch of water on the floor. Saturated ceiling tiles dripped from over our heads.
Our work technically done, we killed the engine, rolled up the hose, and disconnected the power washer from its water source. Then we laughed the entire drive back to home base, hoping against hope that the Queen of the Trolls wouldn’t call Danny before we got back to the shop.
Upon our return, he didn’t say a word. He didn’t mention anything the next day, either, so we just went back to business as usual, cleaning pumps and shoveling car wash sludge at other gas stations. We did return to Gilman a few more times that summer for various odds and ends, but the manager never asked us to check anything else of her Honey-Do List.
For one day, Cole and I got the gumption to stick it to The Man. Or Woman. Or Beast.
Whatever. Somebody got stuck, and it felt great.