I had just finished drawing the children a bath and they were single filing into the 6×6 bathroom, stripping off their clothes and hopping into the tub with various oohs and aahs as their butts dipped into the hot water. First came my eldest daughter Quinn, then my youngest daughter Bryce, followed closely by my nephew, Sawyer. It was our second night at the rented Oregon cabin and we were just starting to settle into our routines.
The three children had submerged themselves in the bubbly bath while my son, Rory, stood next to me, a child that is both four years old and also a prime example of any chiseled grecian statue with his developing biceps and astute six pack. He says, “Dad, uh, excuse me but I have to poop.” And so I step aside and begin wetting hair and splashing toys around.
“Uh, Dad?” Rory’s voice comes from behind me a few moments later. “Something is, uh, wrong, I think…”
I turn and panic twists my stomach into a fist. My heart rate jackrabbits off the charts and my hands begin to shake. The toilet is clogged. The toilet bowl is filling up. The toilet bowl is going to flow onto the floor with putrid brown sauce.
There is no other word for the noise that bursts from my face. I shriek like a banshee of myth and I think I said, “Stand back!” or “Step aside!” or maybe even, “RUN!” but I couldn’t recall exactly even if you placed my hand on a stack of Bibles. My head swivels back and forth, searching for the plunger. The Plunger! YES! The PLUNGER! Oh, how the plunger can be a gift from God. So often it sits there quietly, tall and slender, long of handle and wide of mouth, a beautiful woman that is always ready to get her hands dirty… until you actually need her. And then she is a flakey broad who runs away at the first sign of choppy waters. Why does the bathroom exist that does not contain a plunger?
Rory says, “It’s going to spill,” and I say, “PLUNGER!” and then, like a genie, it appears. Maybe in my panic I blotted it out, but I see it now, hiding behind the toilet. The handle is white and only about 12 inches long. The mouth is narrow and pert. It is short and insufficient and… why is it so short? It’s a plunger built to plunge a sink or a miniature toilet or a garden hose. I need a stallion and this is a bloated Shetlen pony. I need a great dane and this is a corgi, a runty, short legged joke.
Damn you, insufficient plunger.
Damn you, infant plunger.
Damn you, for being so tiny and stupid and helpless.
I thrust the sword at the watery demons and begin to plunge. Splurt! Splert! Spluertt! Brown bubbles burst boisterously. The water continues to fill. I say, “No, no, no, no-no-no, nonono!” Absolute fear. Absolute terror. This is a pure, unrefined emotional massacre.
And then, as suddenly as it started, it stops. With about two inches to spare, everything goes still.
I stand up straight and stretch my back. My knees quiver. My spine aches. My stomach relaxes. The water has mixed into a stew. Bits of turd and soggy toilet paper float around in a beige mixture.
“Wow, Dad! That was close!”
“Rory… please get in the tub.”
I crack my neck and bend over the felony. I insert the world’s most inefficient plunger into the watery grave and I watch as three quarters of the handle disappears into the swampy murk. I press the plunger. I press the plunger. I press the plunger gently so as not to disturb the surface of the aquatic nightmare. My knuckles are less than four inches from ground zero and I don’t want anything to – damn it, I splashed it on myself.
I SPLASHED DUMP WATER ON MY KNUCKLES!
And now what is done is done. The damage is complete. The bubble has popped. I’m no longer dipping my toes into the pool of danger. I am submerged in the terror so let’s make hay while the sun is shining. I pump. I pump. I pump. Five minutes pass. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes pass with me working this thing like a piston and the water level isn’t dropping a fraction of an inch. I want to cry.
Jordan, my brother-in-law, comes in and says, “Hey, what are you – oh no…” and then he follows that thought up with, “Oh, no.” I turn and look over my shoulder and assume he sees the emptiness in my eyes, sees me as a shell of my previous self, he is astute enough to understand that I’m in a bad way. He steps forward, takes the plunger gently from me and tries his hand at it. A full ten minutes later and we’re both broken men, both of us staring at our feet, trying to shake off the magnitude of the shame swimming around us. He says, “Well what the hell?” and hands the plunger back to me. Two minutes and I hand it back to him. Two minutes and he hands it back to me.
Jade says, “I gotta pee – can you two get out… hey, what are you doing?” We both turn to look at her and watch as her eyes sink down. She takes a step backwards and swallows a gag. “I’ll hold it.”
Jordan says, “Whaddaya think?” and I say, “I think… how about you go and get a plastic bread bag, wrap it around your hand and stick your mitt down there – see if you can break up the offender with your fingers.” He raises his eyes to mine and says, “Are you effing kidding me?” and I say, “No. There could be some kind of turd mass that just needs to be destroyed. You could be a hero.”
He says, “YOU put on the bread bag and punch the turd!” and I say, “NO! My plan was for you to do it! Your plan is dumb!”
We plunge more. The kids get out of the tub. Time wears on. The first two knuckles on both of our hands are damp from high tide. The rental cabin we’re staying in doesn’t carry rubber gloves.
I say, “How about we get a wire hanger, untwist it and feed it down? We can punch a series of holes into the brown cork and kind of break it up.” Jordan looks at me and says, “Is that your version of a serious idea? I mean, I know you’re stupid. I’ve known you for a long time but…” then he just shakes his head.
We keep plunging.
A full thirty minutes pass.
I say, “How about we flush the toilet?” and he says, “You want to take the water that’s in the toilet tank and ADD IT to the water that’s in the toilet bowl? You do realize that will make it run onto the floor, right?” I shrug and say, “Doesn’t it, like, open a trapdoor in the hole and then… I guess I’m not a plumber. How about the hanger idea?”
He sighs and exits the bathroom. A few minutes later he returns with a wire hanger. “I can’t believe this is happening. I can’t believe I’m about to poke a turd with a hanger.” He lowers the metal rod into the water and it disappears the moment it enters. There is no clarity below the surface. We’re working blind but hope is still on our side.
Clink. The hanger hits something. He readjusts his angle. Clink. It hits something. Clink. He tells me to guide it. “Yeah, just like that…” Clink, clink, clink. I say, “It’s not going in… what if one of the kids grabbed a cup or a toy or something and dropped it down there and it’s sort of blocking the hole? We need to see the hole… we need…” and he says, “I hate that this is happening.”
We pull the top of the tank off and let the hanger live in the reserve. I say, “Sandwich Bag Plan? Desperate times call for desperate measures, Harry.” He and I stare at each other for several moments. Is this what our lives have amounted to? Is this what our vacation in Oregon is? Is this what we paid for? Turd surfing?
Jordan turns and leaves and comes back with a plastic bag. He says, “Here, put your hand in here,” and I do. In my head I say, “Someone has to be the hero. Someone has to do the dirty work.” This is how I sleep at night. This is how I justify shaking hands with dookie.
He hands me a plastic cup and says, “You’re going to scoop the… stuff… into this cup and you’re going to pour it into this little garbage can and then I’m going to take this little garbage can and I’m going to dump it in the backyard.”
And so this is how we emptied the toilet. This is how we manually removed an entire toilet full of mass hysteria. And when we got to the bottom… we found nothing. The toilet was still clogged and the drain was empty. We jammed the hanger down again. We shoved the plunger in. We cried. We swore. We banged our heads against the wall and kicked the base of the porcelain bowl.
I say, “I guess we should… try flushing it?” and Jordan sighs. He reaches out and flips the handle. The water from the tank immediately begins rushing into the bowl and it’s all happening too fast. The water level begins to rise. Jordan shrieks. I grab the plunger and jam it back into the tan concoction and begin to milk this thing up and down. “It’s not stopping! It’s not stopping!”
Water is splashing everywhere, all over the fronts and backs of my hands, sloshing across my palms and up to my elbows. The force of the intake coupled with the waves I’m causing are triangulating into the perfect storm.
Jordan shouts, “SHUT THE WATER OFF!” and he points to the back of the toilet, down by the base boards. I immediately drop to my knees and shove my arm under the tank and begin to twist. And twist. And twist. And twist. And twist. And it just isn’t shutting off and then the water is overflowing. NO! NO! NO! It’s overflowing! The horrible, horrible water is overflowing and it’s rushing over the lip of the toilet, down the sides, onto the floor that I’m kneeling on and it’s rushing onto my jeans, which have holes in the knees and it’s rushing down my pants and into my socks and why, Rory, why?
The knob finally locks up and I stand quickly, grab a towel off a hook and throw it into the mess like a red steak to a bulldog. Jordan says, “That towel needs to get thrown away when we’re done,” and I just stand there and stare at the bottom half of my body in a complete state of shock.
The screen door in the kitchen slams and one of the six adults who shall remain nameless says, “I just pooped in the backyard. Is the toilet almost fixed?”
Somebody else says, “Should I call the owner of the cabin?” and I say, “Please.” I hear mumbling and then a moment later the same person says, “They’ll send someone over tomorrow morning. I say, “Tomorrow morning? they want nine people to sleep in their rental overnight with no toilet? Do they know my mother-in-law is almost sixty? Do they know we have children here? Do they know I’ve been accustomed to indoor plumbing my entire life? Are they suggesting – just so I’m clear here before I totally freak out – are they suggesting that we go outside and poop in the grass all night? Is that their answer to this situation?” the person says, “Do you want to call her?” and I say, “Phone me.”
It rings twice before the owner picks up. I say, “Hi. This is Johnny. I just spoke to my wife and I feel like maybe she didn’t stress the absolute dire circumstances we’re under right now. My brother-in-law and I have just spent the better part of the last hour plunging, scraping and literally, literally scooping the darkest substance known to man out of your toilet. It has overflown. There is a mess currently residing on the floor of your bathroom and my jeans are covered in a great mistake. We need someone over here tonight. Tomorrow is unacceptable. This needs to happen tonight. This needs to happen as soon as possible.” She says, “I don’t know if I can get someone at 8pm on a Friday-“ and I cut her off. “This needs to happen right now.”
She says, “I’ll go to town.”
And she does. An hour later she’s back with a drain snake and plastic gloves. When she walks in, the first thing she says is, “Y’know… I think the septic tank might be broken. It smells a little… foul out here…” and Jordan says, “That’s where we dumped the shit water,” and I say, “And that’s where one of us took a dump,” and she says, “Uh… oh…” and I say, “Don’t worry. They covered it in pinecones…” She hands us the drain snake and gloves and I raise an eyebrow.
For fifteen minutes we snake this drain like a mongoose in a rabbit hole and nothing happens. She says she’s going to call a plumber, “But!” she says, “In the meantime I brought this.” And she opens the backdoor and reveals a contraption she has clearly built herself. It is, what amounts to, a five gallon bucket duct taped to an elderly person’s walker. It’s a DIY toilet. She says, “I use it when I camp.”
I stare at her.
I stare at it.
I stare at her.
I say, “Thank you,” and slowly allow the door to shut between us. Jordan walks into the kitchen and says, “Hey! Is that a honeypot?” and I say, “I don’t know. Sure. Honeypot.”
Another hour later and the plumber knocks on our door. He’s a tall guy who used to live in California but moved out here when the gangs in his neighborhood got too bad. He walks into the bathroom, jams a tube down the toilet and begins shaking the other end like it’s volting him with electricity. The walls are shaking. The floor is shaking. There is a great thunder and gnashing of teeth. I say, “Givin’ ‘er hell, huh?” and he says, “Oh, yeah. We’re gonna fix this, baby…” and I have to wonder if he’s calling the toilet baby or me.
He jostles and dances with the toilet. It’s beautiful. As mashed toilet paper and old turd particles begin to rush back out of the drain, I find myself in awe of it’s beauty. It’s like watching the cosmos unfold. It’s my front row seat to The Big Bang. It’s all happening in the toilet bowl of my universe.
Sweat breaks out on the plumber’s head as he turns and cranks and stands on his tiptoes. The treasures keep coming, filling the bowl. Every secret it’s ever swallowed is being spewed back into reality. The plumber says, “Yes… here it is… yes…” and he reaches into the water with gloved hands and pulls out a small pink bracelet.
“Here’s the offender.”
I say, “I’ve never seen that before.” And it’s true. I haven’t. I’d feel terrible if I had. But I hadn’t. Keep in mind that we’re a rental cabin. The plumber tosses it in the garbage can, reaches over and flips the lever. All the secrets of the universe, all the quiet conversations and hopes and dreams of the world, all the beautiful and terrible things we’ve ever thought, said or done disappear into the black hole and then pure water flows back and everything is right. The world is back on its axis. Peace is amongst us again. My jeans are still damp but order has returned.
Sitting at the table after the plumber leaves, we all make small talk, each of us hoping one of the others will get up first. Each of us thinking, “No way. No way am I going to be the first one to test drive this bomb. No way am I going to be the guy whose dump blows this place up.”
We all start playing cards.
We all pretend we don’t have to use the bathroom.
We all pucker our buttonholes tightly and pray.