“Go to the men’s room,” my wife says.
We are at our neighborhood library, Saturday afternoon. My sons are in the children’s section looking for adventure novels appropriate to their ages, my wife had been at the computer studying the online catalogue for books about the Washington coast. I am sitting on the bench beside the Staff’s Picks shelf lost in a short story about a young couple dismantling their marriage while brushing their teeth. Life drama exploding in a bathroom. The juxtaposition of tragedy and plumbing. Brilliant.
But now my wife’s finger tapping on my shoulder.
“Go to the men’s room.”
She tells me our eight-year-old is in there. She’s worried. “He’s pooping,” she says.
“He’s old enough to take care of himself,” I say.
My wife shakes her head at me. “There are people out there. In the hallway by the bathroom. Go stand guard.”
I sigh at her. That never works, but I do it. I sigh the way you sigh when you are a married father of two boys and you only want to finish a short story in the library on a Saturday afternoon but that is, apparently, too much to ask. You know the way I mean. Then I snap the book shut to add emphasis to my previous point and toss the book onto the bench. I do not know how the tooth brushing couple made out. I will never know.
* * *
I walk into the Men’s room knowing I don’t need to be there and walk right into the back of a small man standing inside with his two children — a tiny, black-haired Cindy-Lou-Who-sized girl and a tall bean pole boy. The restroom is ridiculously small — one urinal, two stalls, two sinks. A paper sign taped to the door of one stall declares it “Out of Order”. I see my son’s feet under the wall of the working stall. Black sneakers, orange laces, his size nothing pants bunched at his ankles.
Bean Pole has his hand on the door of my son’s stall when I walk in. He rattles it.
“Let him finish,” the little man says. Yes, let him finish, I’m thinking. That and, why does this guy and his daughter have to accompany Bean Pole to the bathroom. He’s got to be 13 at least. Cut the cord buddy, cut the cord.
I say my son’s name into the dank air of the restroom. “I’m here too if you need any help,” I say.
“I don’t need any help,” my son says.
“I know,” I say.
* * *
I look at my own feet. I don’t look around. I don’t look in the mirror. I’m as close to the man and his children as I would be on a crowded subway and the only place I can look without making awkward eye contact is at my own feet. I study the way the laces of my shoes cross.
But the little girl is looking at me.
I feel her dark eyes on me. She is no higher than my knee. Just a blur of black hair in my peripheral vision. I will not focus on her, but I know she is focused on me. It’s remarkably aggressive for someone so young and I realize then that, of course, it is she, not her bean pole brother, who is waiting for the toilet my son has claimed. And she is focused on me because she has pegged me as her rival.
I want to tell her, “I’m not here to take your toilet. I’m just his dad.” But what is she, five? I could tell her “my wife made me come stand in this restroom,” but she wouldn’t understand. I’m not sure I understand. I didn’t think the kid needed help. He doesn’t think he needs help. But here’s this audience standing, waiting for his bowels to move, and that’s just weird and so maybe my wife was right. Maybe I need to be here. I stay silent, eyes on my feet, and all I know is it’s Saturday afternoon, moments ago I was reading, thrilling to the discovery of a new writer, and now I am conscripted into a public restroom, holding vigil over the emptying of my child’s bowels. Life is a wonder, parenthood a parade of thrills.
* * *
Thank God. He is done. He has flushed. The stall door opens. We are to be liberated. My son walks out, the little girl walks in.
A quick wash of his hands (more like putting a glob of soap on his fingers and immediately washing it down the drain, but today it is forgiven). Paper towel. Garbage. We turn from the sink to walk out the door and we are blocked by the little girl.
She backs out of the toilet stall. She turns and looks up at me, mouth agape, face suffused with an outrage that knocks me back on my heels. Her obsidian eyes are sharpened and they slice at me before she turns and leads her tiny father and the bean pole out the door.
What mystery is this? Why was she here if not to use the toilet? Why did she wait only to walk out when it was her turn? The answer waits inside the stall, I know. I don’t want to look. But I know I must.
I step forward. I press the door open. It creaks. And there — there is the reason, there is the source of the little girl’s outrage. It is the Loch Ness monster in a porcelain pool. It is a body adrift in a fetid swamp, the muddy water nearly at flood stage.
“Did you use a lot of toilet paper?” I say to my son.
“Yeah,” he says and he walks toward the door. He pulls it open and walks out.
“You have to make sure it flushes,” I call after him as the door closes.
* * *
And now. Now I am alone in the men’s room. But not alone. The Loch Ness monster in the toilet is with me. And then I realize this: because I am the only person in the men’s room, standing in the open door of the stall, the next person who walks in will conclude that it was I who released the monster. They will not know my son was here with me, that this is his work — he’s gone back to find books and I am left…up shit creek, as it were.
And then I panic. It’s as simple as that. I should leave the room. But I can’t. I am certain someone will come in at the moment I leave and they will find the monster and pin it to me. And in that moment of panic there in the stall door, I feel my foot rise from the floor, my leg stretch toward the flush handle and I watch as my foot presses that handle down.
Even as I do it, I know it is the wrong move. But it is too late. The swamp swirls, the monster spins, the waters rise and breach the top of the bowl and at the first sounds of the fetid cataract splashing onto the tile, I am already running from the door of the men’s room into the stacks to collect my family.
I find them. I wrench the books from their arms without explanation, I herd them toward the door of the library and across the parking lot and into the minivan. We lurch backward from our parking space, cutting off an approaching car, bounce over the speed bump and over the curb onto the street. We run. Like perps. Like criminals. Like the hunted. Like the Von Trapp family. We run.
* * *
I realize that the title of this post puts the blame on my eight year old son. But it is not his fault. It is mine. And like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner I shall be damned by my choices that day. I shall know the standard of adulthood, of fatherhood, of grown-manhood and know I fell short that day and that the librarians suffered greatly for my failures. I shall be doomed to tell this story as atonement…Water, Water, every where. And the men’s room began to stink…