Afternoon sunshine filtered through the parking garage as I walked down the two floors to where my vanpool’s twelve passenger van was parked. The van’s double doors stood open, and I knew that one of our riders had arrived early. The bright sunlight faded into darkness as I climbed into the van. Sure enough, Mitch was sitting in the back seat quietly studying his phone, the screen lighting his face from beneath like a kid playing with a flashlight. The other passengers trickled in one by one. Bill and Paul were the last to arrive, and after a brief debate, Bill climbed into the driver’s seat while Paul took the co-pilot’s chair. At five after four we pulled out of the garage and onto the street.
We were all quiet, tired from a long day. The other riders made noises of settling in, plugging in earphones, quiet murmurs of conversation. Glancing back from my seat in the second row and I could see that a few had already stretched out their legs and closed their eyes, eager to let the hum of the road and familiar surroundings of the van carry them off to sleep.
Paul leaned forward to riffle through his backpack. After a brief and noisy hunt he extracted a plastic sandwich bag of crackers. The bag crinkled as he ate his afternoon snack, and the smell of processed cheese floated through the van like the waves emanated from Pigpen in the Peanuts comics. I held my notebook in one hand, ignoring the smell, and rooted around in my own bag with the other. As I had rushed from my office to meet the van, and had carelessly thrown a pen in the bag, knowing I was going to have a hell of a time finding it among the day’s gym clothes and shoes. Sometimes I hate being right.
Bill leaned forward over the steering wheel and reached a hand into one of the van’s small storage compartments.
“Ach!” he exclaimed, upper lip curved in a sneer of disgust. I looked up from my pen-hunt, curious to see what had caused the outburst. When he drew his hand back from the storage compartment I could see he was holding something. Pinched between his thumb and forefinger was a small bit of misshapen green plastic. Bill’s lips pressed together in a thin line. Glaring a silent accusation, he held the plastic out to Paul.
Puzzled, I studied the contents of Bill’s upraised hand. For an odd moment I thought he held the world’s smallest divining rod. Then, realizing what I was looking at, I wrinkled my nose and cringed back against my seat. Pinched between Bill’s thumb and forefinger, its string broken and shredded, was a used toothpick flosser.
Paul looked up from his bag of crackers. He peered at Bill’s hand, unimpressed.
“Huh,” Paul said, eyeing the flosser, nodding in recognition. “I was wondering where that went.” He gave Bill an embarrassed lopsided grin that seemed to say Oops, sorry! But you’re in luck, ol’ buddy ol’ pal, because I got my flu shot this year.
“I drove the van to my dentist appointment,” Paul said, defensive. “You have to floss before you go to the dentist!”
Paul plucked the flosser from Bill’s outstretched hand and squirreled it away in a pocket. Content with this solution, Paul peered into the plastic bag, selected another cracker and popped it his mouth. He turned to look out the window, crunching noises once again filling the cabin.
Bill was stunned into silence. One hand on the wheel, he blinked his eyes from Paul to the traffic in front of him then back to Paul again. No doubt he was imagining the same thing I was: an army of unseen germs that lived on the flosser. Germs that were now setting up camp on the skin of Bill’s hand with plans to advance up his arm. The silence, save Paul’s chewing, grew fat and pregnant ballooning in a thin and almost visible membrane of discomfort.
This. Was. Great.
I Love (yes, I meant to use a capital L) moments like this. I’m sick, I know. They make me want to clap my hands with a black sort of glee. I didn’t–I managed restraint.
I cleared my throat, a smile twitching at my lips. Out of the corner of one eye, I saw Bill put his hands back on the wheel and face forward. He looked relieved to let someone else take over the commentary.
“So, Paul,” I said, keeping my voice neutral, though a grin still tugged at the corners of my mouth. Paul turned to look at me, still chewing contentedly. “I guess you’re pretty comfortable in here.”
A beat passed.
Bill began to snicker. Then giggle. Finally, he dissolved into his hallmark peals of laughter. Paul, an amused twinkle in his eye, fished another cracker out of his bag, and paused with it pinched between two fingers. He leaned over his seat, eyes searching the floorboards around the co-pilot’s chair. He quirked an eybrow at Bill.
“Let me know if you find a Q-Tip”, he said wryly. He popped the cracker into his mouth.
I laughed, too. It was pretty funny.
Still, I stopped digging for a pen… and started looking for hand sanitizer.