The plumber arrived after midnight. Tugce could only guess at the functions of the equipment he lugged up the sidewalk—coily hoses, floppy saws, a round tubular thing that reminded her of R2-D2, from Star Wars, her favorite American movie. She stood at the window in her rented cap and gown, looking down as the man in the “Make America Great Again” hat entered the building.
The rest of the dorm was empty, the other international students out celebrating, but Tugce’d remained behind, intent on reflecting on all she’d learned in America in preparation for her graduation speech tomorrow—except all she did was practice smiling in her cap and gown, playing with the cap’s little strand so it covered a pimple.
Tugce heard the plumber’s heavy steps and the scraping of his tools against her bedroom door. There was some kind of podcast blaring from his person, the broadcaster’s voice shrill and insistent, screaming “Zero tolerance is the only justice!” The plumber entered the bathroom and started banging, flushing and re-flushing the toilet, a drill sound reminding her of the dentist.
Tugce’d told her dormmates she wanted to stay home to write her speech, but in actuality she was afraid of putting herself in situations where there would be alcohol. On campus, people assumed she abstained for cultural-religious reasons, but what concerned her was how much she loved it. This was the subject she wanted to address in her speech, but she was concerned about publicly admitting to alcoholism. She worried she was an alcoholic even though she didn’t drink much because her behavior changed and she did things she either was ashamed of the next day and/or didn’t remember at all. How could she talk about it without mentioning it specifically?
A crash came from the bathroom. Tugce removed her cap and gown, replacing them with a New Mexico State University hoodie. She looked down the hallway and called out, her voice accented and mild, “Mister?” She was cautious, but as a nurse she had been trained to intervene in dangerous situations.
She rushed to the man’s side and squatted by him. He was fetal on the tiled floor, his temple bruised, his nose bleeding. There was blood on the lid of the toilet. He drank from a flask and grimaced. “Are you an angel?” he joked.
“I am Tugce Adaba Alihpiri. I’m a nurse?” She didn’t know why she intonated it as a question.
“Welcome to America,” he said. “I’m Joe. A good American name.”
Bending beside him, she could smell whiskey, cigarettes, and hemorrhoid cream. She sopped up the blood with a handful of cotton swabs, gently plugging the last one in his right nostril, and then palpated his temple. He had a coarse, puffy face, with busted capillaries under his eyes and along his nose and chapped lips.
The man on the radio screamed, “They want us to become a shithole country like where they came from!”
Tugce asked him to turn off the radio, saying she needed to concentrate.
He scrutinized her face but she focused on treating his wound, and when glancing at him showed a visceral sincerity and dedication-to-task that had resulted in her being voted the nursing cohort’s valedictorian. “I guess you’re in charge,” he said, grabbing his phone with the MAGA case and turning off the audio. “You from Iraq?”
“Did you ever hear the joke about Turkey?” Tugce’s warm brown eyes sparkled.
“Ok, so a guy says I’m so Hungary I could eat a Turkey. It’s funnier if you see the words.”
Joe cleared his throat and said, “It goes I was Hungary so Iran to the fridge to get some Turkey but there was Greece on it and I was like, there’s Norway I can eat that.”
“Oh that is funnier!” she exclaimed.
Joe tried to stand up but swayed, and Tugce guided him to the toilet seat. She bent down and lifted up his chin, making eye contact. “I am going to give my speech for you.” Tugce hurried back to her room and changed back into her cap and gown.
“So, okay,” Tugce said, stepping onto the bathtub lip and standing above him. She cleared her throat. She looked American, but was that just because America didn’t look like America anymore? She read from the phone in her left hand. “In summary then,” she commenced her concluding remarks.
“Summation,” Joe said, gently, his hands still folded. He met her eyes. “It’s ‘in summation’.”
She stroked some keys on her phone and nodded. “In summation, then.” She giggled and made a goofy face. “Okay, in summation, all of us graduates here have one thing to be proud of: that we persevered. There were bad times, times when we wanted to give up, when we missed home, but in the end we are here. For me, the best times were the worst times—you say rock bottom I believe in America, here, our new home. I believe that without hitting rock bottom, we can’t ascend to the top of the mountain.”
“That’s good,” Joe said. “Rock bottom part.”
“That’s the end anyway,” Tugce said.
“Maybe tonight is my rock bottom,” he whispered. Joe didn’t say anything more, he didn’t cry or put his head in his hands or dramatically throw the flask away. He just sat there, playing with his fingers.
“If it’s rock bottom, then you should be so happy. There is nowhere to go but better.”
“Up,” Joe said. “Nowhere but up.”
“Up, then.” Tugce smiled, her teeth slanted but clean. “Even better.” They sat that way until dawn, him penitent on the toilet, his scarred hands like slabs of ham. Tugce watched him openly, observing his tremors, his flushed face, his humped back. And she knew then what she could talk about in her speech without giving herself away.
James McAdams has published fiction in Amazon/Day One, Ghost Parachute, Burning House Press, and X-Ray Lit Mag, among others, while shopping a collection of shorts and working on a novel about the opioid epidemic. He is an English Instructor at the University of South Florida and the Flash Fiction Editor at Barren Magazine. His work can be viewed at jamesmcadams.org and he can be followed @jamestmcadams.