My shift at the Ped Mall Hardee's had been a disaster. It was Sunday morning, a big day for biscuits and gravy, and somehow over the course of my six hour breakfast shift, I'd managed to get more gravy on me than on all the biscuits I'd served combined. It was a good thing I wasn't majoring in fast food service at the University of Iowa, because I clearly wasn't cut out for the rigors of the job.
As I stepped into the sunshine of the Pedestrian Mall--a haphazard mix of quaint local shops, bars catering to the college crowd, and corporate purveyors of food of questionable nutritional value--I slipped off my Hardee's cap and ran a hand through my hair.
More gravy. Complete with sausage chunks.
It was clear I needed a shower. But the shower at my apartment wasn't working. It was less a plumbing problem than a payment problem. My roommate's check for our water bill had bounced. He had failed to inform me of this fact until the day I returned from my Shakespeare class to discover our water had been turned off.
"I to the world am like a drop of water," I'd muttered at the time. But quoting the Bard did little to remedy the situation.
Now, standing on the Ped Mall wearing my weight in gravy, I cast my eye on the nearby fountain. Known by the charming nickname "Three Ladies Peeing," the fountain was made up of three red tubes, each a different height and evoking a pair of legs and a lap. From each of the laps flowed copious amounts of water. The tallest of the "ladies" was of sufficient stature for a gravy covered Hardee's employee to stand beneath.
I was desperate enough to give this a go, but a second glance revealed a potential issue. There was a young woman about my age standing in the fountain. She wasn't taking an impromptu public shower. Instead, she appeared to be attempting to stop the ladies from peeing. She was wrapping what looked to be duct tape around the lap of the shortest structure. Apparently, this was her third or fourth attempt because I could see strips of discarded duct tape floating in the lower reservoir of the fountain like particularly skinny and wholly dead fish.
The girl was getting soaked. And frustrated. I wandered over.
Next to the fountain, a backpack overflowing with rolls of duct tape sat in a puddle made by the fountain's spray. The backpack was adorned with a collection of Mondale/Ferraro pins, which confirmed my sense that its owner was a fan of lost causes. Like attempting to stem the stream of water from a public fountain with duct tape while it was operating.
I was fond of lost causes myself.
"Hey," I said just as she managed to redirect the water into her own face. "Are you taking hostages or what?"
She nearly slipped as she turned toward me, but managed to steady herself by grabbing the leg of the lady she was trying to tape up. She pushed her hair out of her eyes, which allowed her to glower at me more effectively.
"This fountain," she said, "is an abomination."
"Abomination seems strong," I replied. "It isn't the most attractive fountain I've ever seen, but ... "
"It's not just ugly," she interrupted. "It depicts the private personal functions of women. On the Ped Mall. In front of God, children, and everybody!"
"I'm pretty sure 'Three Ladies Peeing' is just a nickname," I said. "And I doubt this fountain is the worst thing God has seen on the Ped Mall."
Turning back to her task, she waved a wet and dismissive hand at me.
Since the conversation seemed to be at an end, I dropped my hat by her backpack and stepped into the fountain, positioning myself under the tallest lady and letting the stream wash the gravy from my hair, my polyester uniform, and with any luck, my soul.
"What are you doing?" the tape wielder asked me.
"Getting a morning's worth of gravy off of me," I replied.
I paused. "You know this is water, right? At best, I guess you could call it metaphorical urine, but that might be a stretch. Even though I love a good metaphor."
"Is your gravy metaphorical?" she asked.
"Decidedly not," I said. "This is real congealed sausage gravy. Most of which was intended for customers but ended up on me instead."
"You must be bad at your job," she said.
"And you aren't too great at taping up fountains," I retorted.
"Protest isn't for the faint of heart," she said.
"Neither is Sunday morning at Hardee's."
She went back to failing to tape up the fountain. I went back to failing to get all of the gravy out of my hair.
It's possible that we each sneaked surreptitious glances at the other while all of this failure was underway.
Eventually, my new acquaintance decided she was going to have to let the ladies keep peeing. At least for the time being. I gave her a wave as she stepped out of the fountain, stooped by her backpack for a moment, and then shouldered the bag and headed off in the direction of Prairie Lights.
A few moments later, I decided my shower was over. I shivered a bit as I stepped clear of the water, but the sun was warm. I scooped up my hat and made a surprising discovery: a phone number written in black marker on a piece of duct tape affixed to the bill of my cap.
This, I must admit, seemed like a much better use of her tape.