Jerry stares down the alley that cuts between Famous Ray’s Pizza and a bodega. He leans over, his hands on his knees, breathing heavily through his surgical mask. After a moment, Jerry stands and extracts a new pair of surgical gloves from an interior pocket of his silky white running suit. He pulls on the gloves with the alacrity and seriousness of a neurosurgeon, and then takes out his iPhone (which is encased in a plastic cover depicting Martha Stewart). The decision point has been reached: Either he sticks with Plan A and runs the risk of being late for work; or he boldly executes Plan B, the alley short cut.
A glance down the alley confirms that with Plan B he would almost certainly be contaminated by the microbial stew on its suspiciously shiny surfaces. But the Plan A map on his iPhone, utilizing a decidedly less infectious route, predicts Jerry will arrive at Starbucks four minutes late.
Being late means he will have broken his Time Rule.
And things will go downhill from there.
Jerry will screw-up every drink order and Lyle will jump on his case big time. Jerry will be forced by his Atonement Rule to derive Schrödinger’s quantum wave equations in his head all day — the kind of math you see on the blackboards at places like MIT. Lyle will make Jerry clean the Starbucks restrooms. Jerry is mortified by what goes on in Starbucks restrooms. One time he found a cheeseburger on the toilet seat — the stuff of nightmares.
There is hope, however, as cutting through the alley behind Famous Ray’s will allow Jerry to reach Starbucks with 2.4 minutes to spare, assuming the lights are with him over on Avenue A. Of course, the alley will almost certainly expose him to pathogens, breaking his Contamination Avoidance Rule, but Jerry performs a quick analysis of his dilemma, deeming the risk of fatal infection statistically insignificant compared to the certain pain of Lyle (and restroom cheeseburgers).
Jerry slips into the germ-infested netherworld of the alley.
His first obstacle is an ominous puddle of unknown provenance spanning the narrow width of the darkened alley, too long to leap. He can almost see the e coli swimming laps in the greasy black liquid. He has no choice but to extract the emergency decon booties from his running suit. He loses a few seconds to slip the booties on. His feet make loathsome sucking sounds in the toxic muck as he tiptoes through the puddle. There are other obstacles before him: over-stuffed garbage bags; a bulging rolled up rug with maybe a corpse inside it; stacked crates full of shiny rotted purple eggplant. He wends his way down the alley like a Kung Fu novice twisting and turning his way across rice paper, leaving no mark of his passing.
He is almost clear when he hears a cry, almost a mewl, in the garbage bin at the end of the alley. Sodden pizza boxes and eviscerated garbage bags bulge out beneath the lid of the bin. A white substance drips down its side. At the bin’s base, a cracked baby bottle oozes chunky milk into a storm drain.
Another cry — muffled, metallic, miserable.
Jerry chipmunks in the half-light, frozen in mid-stride, a frightened animal, his eyes wild above the surgeon’s mask.
He processes the data.
The clock is ticking.
Standing on tiptoes, he lifts the top of the bin with his gloved hands and peers into the abyss. Stuffed into an industrial-sized shredded cheese bucket is a baby: stained kitty-cat pajamas; crusty red-rimmed eyes; a thick yellow runnel of snot curling out of its nose directly into its mouth.
Jerry steps back. The metallic lid booms back into place. There is no sound from within the bin — the boom must have scared the wits out of the thing. Babies are loud, dirty, germ-ridden breeding grounds for every disease known to man. Jerry’s impulse is to look left, look right, and slip out of the alley.
Lyle is waiting with the mop and a bucket of gray water. The alley germs are working their way up his booties; they’re eating away at his contaminated gloves.
Several neurons fire in Jerry’s brain — synapses that have never fired before. They will likely be zealously fenced off under some new rule, but nonetheless, new connections have been made; a trail has been blazed. Jerry’s mind conjures up a visual from his childhood: The Grinch’s spectacular smile when his “heart grew two sizes that day”. Then an audible memory as well — “boink” went the magnifying glass.
Jerry knows what he has to do: Create a new rule — something on the order of ‘You can’t leave a baby in a garbage can’ — perhaps a bit too situationally-specific, but there is no time for wordsmithing at this point.
Jerry lifts the lid again, scooping the thing out of the bucket, holding it up in the air like Simba the Lion King, snot dangling from its face, nightmarish spirals of mucous snagging on his jacket, which is destined for immediate decontamination at the dry-cleaners. Holding the baby in one arm, Jerry takes out a Handi Wipe from a plastic container in his side pocket, and scrubs the infant’s dirt-encrusted face, exposing chapped red cheeks.
Jerry’s iPhone alarm plays the Beethoven’s Fifth ringtone: Da Da Da Dum. It is now official: He’s late for work. Lyle and the restroom await.
Plan B has failed.
The baby smiles up at him, exposing a single tooth; a smile meant for Jerry, a rare and delightful phenomenon, indeed.
Jerry dashes out of the alley into the late afternoon sunlight, cradling the child to his chest, its black hair clotted with chunks of rancid mozzarella.
“You need a bath,” he whispers as he heads for home.
Mike DiChristina’s stories have recently been published in Literary Juice and Postcard Shorts. Mike currently lives in Connecticut with his wife and three teenaged daughters.