Empty Stool
by Alissa Nutting

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          Sheila had to tackle her incontinence or she would never get a date. Her goal was sex, but really it was more than that; it was Sam Benson who had one orthopedic shoe. His other foot was free of aesthetic compromise, its proportion was fluid with regular curves and pads. It was a pure foot. She thought often of caressing it and doing something to its toes she had seen once on the television then attempted to practice on herself. The trial had not been a success: the angles, the belly bulge. She had been contorted to a position of strain, unable to bring them to her lips.
          The leg connected to Sam’s good foot was a triumphant stem, beautiful in its own right. Harsher critics might call it “chickenly,” too bald for a man-leg, sparse might be a better term; its few hairs were dark enough to be spied with great visibility when she ate at the diner Sam frequented. Although he was a smaller man, he always chose a stool seat. Sheila appreciated that he didn’t need to feel his legs touch the ground. His large shoe cast a wedge-like shadow that Sheila liked to stare inside, trying to see down to its bottom as though it were a lake.
          Sheila’s pills didn’t work; her therapist was of the mind that the surprise bouts of urination were psychological in nature. In addition to afternoon lapses it happened consistently when dreaming: Sheila would wake to find that Sam was not in fact lying beside her, that Prettiest, her arthritic basenji, had sensed a disturbance and crawled from beneath the covers up onto the extra pillow, the one sitting next to Sheila’s head on the bed’s empty passenger side, that the dog was giving Sheila miserable eyes that questioned why they had to live like this and whether there was really any point at all. Unlike Sheila, Prettiest had wet their bed only once, when Sheila had placed a hairnet on the dog for a photo opportunity. The dog had not cheered up since and had not been delighted prior.
          “Prettiest, I find I have soiled myself again.” But Sheila meant something else: Sam would never tolerate this condition.
          She readied herself to get up and wash the sheets, Lysol and wipe the mattress protector, watch an exercise product infomercial and remark to Prettiest about how different and slender Sheila would be if she owned the gadget. Reaching across the nightstand for the flashlight, Sheila’s fingers instead landed on a bottle of cold syrup. “God allows no accidents,” she commented, drinking the liquid hurriedly as though it were a cure. Prettiest sniffed at its strong cherry odors, her eyes two slits of disapproval.
          Sheila’s next dream involved a magic where her urine could cure Sam’s withered foot for 24-hour periods. Each night he would sleep with the foot pressed between Sheila’s legs. It was their form of intimacy. They’d wake up and he’d leap out of bed, jump several times on his former handicap and insist she take no part in the bed’s clean up. “My job, my privilege.” He said that to her in her dream.
           “My job, my privilege.” Sheila awoke groggy and irritable; she could feel the wetness setting into a rash. She reached for more syrup but found that she’d drunk it all. Prettiest’s eyes were barely open and she was wheezing. “Time to greet the day.” Sheila took a shower but couldn’t bring herself to do the linens; not yet, not after the dream. In her closet, she located her boldest print, a tropical variation of a floral design. “We are not so different from animals, Prettiest.” Bright colors signal desire to mate. When she looked in the mirror, she noticed a wet hairnet. She had forgotten to remove it before showering, forgotten to actively wash her hair. She had the nerves of a teenager.Before leaving she looked in at Prettiest, whose health appeared to have rapidly declined in the past few hours. There was twitching and more hair removed itself from the dog’s body each minute. It looked like time-lapse photography.“I’ll be back,” said Sheila. Prettiest’s head raised upon its now-bald throat. The slits of her eyes said I know what you’re going to do and I choose death. Sheila coughed a little. The air was getting quite stale, better to get on her way. She stopped in at the drug store and bought more cough syrup. An attempt at conversation with the cashier was thwarted by a demanding customer who wanted to know the chemical basis for his peanut allergy. “I’ll go now,” Sheila offered in a remark of kinship, “I see you have your hands full.” She waited a few moments hoping the cashier might give her a wink. On her way to the diner she took a tiny sip of the syrup, just a capful. She wondered if she should try alcohol. There had never been an occasion. Her entire life had passed and suddenly she found herself wanting a man, and maybe alcohol. She realized she was running. As well as she could.She’d already ordered a tea and a stuffed tomato in the diner before she realized Sam wasn’t there: the stool was empty. She made a loud sound of distress that summoned the waiter, “Pie,” she whispered. Her lip was beginning to quiver. “Pie, pie,” she whispered it as though it was the beginning of a longer word she could not bring herself to speak, as though she was stuttering. He brought it with ice cream; Sheila was glad that he’d assumed correctly. Her assumption had been entirely off. She had not even considered that Sam wouldn’t be at the diner. She brought the cough syrup out of the bag and mechanically poured it into her cup of tea like this was her job, she was being paid to pour the syrup into the tea until it reached the top of the cup. She pinched her nose and drank it, then ate the pie without remembering to unplug her nose.
          “Does it taste bad?” the waiter asked when he stopped by. Sheila decided to pretend that it did, but that she was eating it anyway because she was a very good person. She also decided that she couldn’t be alone come nightfall; what she needed was one of Sam’s shoes. If she had one of his shoes with her she could set it on top of the television and watch it alongside the infomercial while her sheets dried, she could take it into the bedroom and let Prettiest smell it, and then when Sam finally did come over to the house the dog would already recognize him. There was a man on the stools who looked familiar; Sheila fought her hiccups and walked over.
          “Sam, he sits here. I know that’s his name because I’ve heard people call him that. One of his shoes is big. Do you know where he lives?”
          The man sipped his coffee. “Yeah, in his car. I don’t mean car, I mean he drives it, it’s a truck with a cab on the back so there’s a door and a bed inside. You know those?”
          “Where does he park for the night?”
          “Well he never leaves town, but he’s always on the go. Think he parks wherever.”
          Sheila clenched her syrup bag and ran towards the door. “Did you pay?” asked the waiter. Running was difficult; she wanted to curl up somewhere and sleep, an alley or an alcove, but then she would wake up wet in public. You must keep moving, she insisted to herself, you must find him. Driving was even harder; it was not crystal clear what the other cars on the road were doing. In the parking lot of a 24-hour grocery she saw a truck with a cab, got out and knocked on the door. Sam answered. His teeth were not in. “I’m so tired and my car is running,” she complained. She hoisted the upper-half of her torso into the cabin and began grabbing everything she could reach until she found a shoe. She wasn’t sure if it was a big one or a regular one, but she decided it didn’t matter. “I’d like to have you over for dinner sometime,” Sheila offered, “tonight’s no good.” Sam didn’t answer but seemed gentlemanly, like it was so clear he would come that he didn’t need to verbally accept.
          The setting darkness made driving home harder and finding the switch to activate her car’s headlights harder, for a while she pulled into a driveway that was not her own and slept until it was not as dark anymore, then woke up wet and went home. In her living room the light from outside was starting to glow against her window shades. In her bedroom the sheets were wet and her dog was dead. She lifted Prettiest the best she could, which was by the back legs, and brought the body down to the floor. The fur slid easily on the polished wood so she pushed the dog underneath the bed for a moment. The sheets went into the wash and she Lysoled and wiped the mattress cover, she put Sam’s shoe on top of the television. It was a regular shoe. In her new crystal clarity she realized she should’ve waited until she found a big one and taken that—he would probably come looking for her, then, if she had one of his big shoes that were probably expensive and custom to make. Sheila confessed, “I acted in haste, Prettiest.”