Because of Your Bowels, None Shall Read

The Ancient Mariner“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.angryagatha

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.

LochnessmonsterWhat 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.

flood_2Even 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…



235 thoughts on “Because of Your Bowels, None Shall Read

  1. Oh this is a hoot! I take it you’ll be frequenting a different library branch from now on — one on the opposite side of town, maybe? Or in the next town over?

  2. This is hilarious on many levels. I laughed so hard reading this while riding the train that the guy next to me “just had to turn and ask – what are you reading?” He has saved it on his iPad to read for later!

    • Yes, parenthood brings you in contact with, and makes you responsible for, the darkest and basest elements of human life. I have told friends before that I will look back on this time in my life as “the clogged toilet years” and this story is just one more example. Thanks for your comment, good luck.

  3. Running was definitely the best option. Libraries aren’t so bad, but something about Barnes and Noble apparently, um, makes me, um, regular, yeah, that’s it. Not every time I go there, but more often than you’d think. Maybe retail prices of books make my stomach queasy or something.

    • You’re the first person to validate my flight response. I appreciate that. As for your…issue…I guess it’s good to know what helps you if you find yourself in a bind, as it were. Thanks for your comment, you’re very open! 😉

    • He does not know that I shared this story with the world. Partly for his privacy and partly for my safety I’ve left his name out of the narrative. I can always claim I was talking about his brother. Plausible deniability is the key.

    • I want to know too! Usually I take a picture with my iPhone if I find a book I’m interested in following up with. In the excitement of the day, I didn’t follow that procedure. Try not to think about it. Thanks for the kind words.

      • All I can tell you is that we once had to replace the wax seal on a toilet because it is apparently easier to flush the apple in your lunch rather than take the chance of putting it in the trash and getting a lecture about wasting food (about 12). Just FYI, he had to pay for the plumber. Many years later (17) he replaced the toilet seal again (not his fault), only this a time he did it himself. Guess the plumbing lesson was worth it. Parenting is how WE grow up.

  4. Haha good one… I have 50 y/0 friends that I can’t be with in the men’s room at the same time for the same reason and I definitely will not go in after they come out…

  5. Lol… Can I confess same thing happened in the church toilet after my 5 yr old went and wrapped up his business with a lot of toilet paper and I flushed !! Only difference , there were people bare feet in the next stall 😦

  6. This was wonderful to read! An adventure in parental misfortunes, child blissfully un-aware of that awkward reality. Nice work describing the bath room family. Really enjoyed the entire piece. Thank you for the smile. 🙂

  7. Talk about running like the Von-Trappes, when my sister was 5 she dropped the quart bottle of Formaldhyde, Ma bought it to preserve a starfish, in the middle aisle of the local grocery store…we cleared out the whole place. With me screaming because I wanted the plastic lobster in fish showcase. We never went back to that store, great post thanks.

  8. A wonderful read, this makes me think of the boys in my family. Never fails to have one of them forcefully shoving me to leave a store after they go! Had me laughing even after I read it, although, please excuse me for laughing at your embarrassment.

  9. I liked most of the story. It was well written. I do have one issue though: I work in a bookstore. I’ve cleaned up more people’s crap than I can count. I’ve cleaned it up on bathroom floors, walls, stall doors, toilet seats, and children’s departments. I have, once, cleaned up pants full of poo that were abandoned in my store. I’ve also cleaned up most of the other things that can come out of a person without being fatal.
    Please, please, please tell someone when this happens. We won’t yell at you, or kick you out of the store. We will, on the other hand, appreciate your honesty. We will also appreciate the fact that you acknowledge that we are people, fellow humans with lives other than wearing a name tag. We will also appreciate that we can clean it up in a timely manner, since we have a business/institution to run and would prefer to not be known as, “that one place with poo all over.”
    I’m sorry to be a buzz-kill.
    Pro Tip: Look for a plunger next time. Don’t actually plunge, since you may splash all over yourself, but use it to break up the TP. The TP that businesses/libraries use breaks down quickly in water.

    • This. Yes, this. This is what I know I inflicted on the librarians by running from my responsibility in that situation. I don’t think you’re a buzz-kill, you’re just pointing out the stark reality that when I said at the end of my piece that the librarians would suffer for my actions, that part was no joke. Part of why I wanted to write this was as an admonishment to myself to slow down, think less selfishly and do the right thing if I’m in a situation like this again. I will do better next time. Thank you for your comment.

  10. I’ve been in the same situation, except it was I who left the Loch Ness monster, then thought it would be wise to flush a second time when the first obviously didn’t do anything. I got the hell out of there.

  11. I know what you’re doing here. You were wiling to embarrass yourself in front of the whole blogosphere just to make sure your wife never again asks you to follow your son into the restroom. Little did you know you would get Freshly Pressed, and the whole wide world would know of your shame!! Congrats on the FP!

  12. Been – not quite there, but I feel your pain. And laughter. Reminded me a little of Leacock’s My Financial Career. Only, with poop.
    An aside: take out the very last line. Water, water etc is fine (after all, who would…eww!); but the attempt to force a (poorly scanning) rhyme draws too much attention to itself and adds nothing. Not after Loch Ness, brother. You done good.

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  14. Me again, there is a word for this in the common work place- “Phantom Shitter”, I to have cleaned up some “Loo-Loos” Stories for another time. Family Von-Trappe, they must have needed to stop somwhere, thanks Ethan.

  15. Hilarious!!! (and then, not so much–insert blink here)

    This stated creative this a fiction, embellished–or just so real that it fits in the category?! still giggling thank you

    • Hilarious! Public restrooms are a nightmare. Doing it in public is viscious, never knowing who’s going to walk in. Having some one waiting for your stall embarrassing. Having to wait for a stranger’s stall demoralising. Having the toilet backup tsunami proportion of terror. Yet the immature spoke up and apologised and even after a comment from an irate proprietor who was on the cleanup end of the business. Keep writing you have character.


  16. Same thing happened to my son in San Francisco. It was like a bank heist. He was 14, went to a bathroom in the restaurant while we went to get the car. Pulled up out front to pick him up. He runs out, jumps in the car and says “Hit it!” The man next in line to use the stall my son had just used was yelling, “What the hell…?” as my son bolted from the bathroom. Kids, they really make you look good!

  17. I too have experienced the horror of a kid poo that would not go away. You told this so well and perfectly captured the moment! I especially enjoyed the standoff with the 5 year old girl – I have three small girls so I know how tough they can be. Thank you for making me laugh.

  18. Ethan that was a brilliant story and one that I have been a part of as well. Like you, I took off as fast as I could realizing that no matter what story that I painted for them, it would not make up for the mess that was needed to be cleaned. One of the most warming moments for me was when my oldest son (at the time no older than 5) was accompanying me to the video rental store. After making the appropriate selection of movies for the evening, we proceeded to the sales desk. My son, from the darkest regions of his small bowels, lets loose the loudest eruption of foul smelling unpleasantness that would make the burliest of men hold their breath. The little bugger than goes behind me, pinches his nose and blames me for his fart. All that I could do at that moment was pay for the video’s while accepting the shame for the foul smells that everyone was now eating. I knew if that I tried to shift blame on my sweet looking son that I would look like some douche bag dad blaming his son for his indiscretions! The little man had sold out his father and upon entering the vehicle says “I gotcha good eh dad, I gotcha good”. Like every great father before me all that I could respond back with was “Yeah you gotta me good buddy” and laugh it off. The joys of children.

    • Oh, what a great story. But painful. I like that he knew what a dastardly thing he had done. You will, of course, be able to get him back at some point, right? Maybe when he’s introducing you to some date he particularly fancies. It’s part of the code, you are entitled to retaliation. Thanks for sharing your story.

  19. Might appreciate this- (not about fatherhood, but similar theme.)

    • Thanks for your comment. I was not familiar with Richard Brautigan before this, but I went to and found some of his stories. I read “Revenge of the Lawn”. Really funny and evocative — only place I’ve ever seen mention of a flock of de-feathered and hung-over geese. Thanks for pointing me to his work.

  20. Thank you! What an amazing story. I’m a night owl in a house full of early birds. I just woke up the whole nest because I was laughing so loud. I’m sure they will punish me tomorrow morning.

  21. Every family has to have these cringe worthy stories. After a decade or so, we started retelling the best ones at Thanksgiving dinner. Here’s one that I think is particularly appropriate given your story here: for years and years my brother couldn’t stand the fact that my dad would “check in on him” in the restroom. Until one fateful night, while staying at a KOA, that my brother got up in the middle of the night with the rumbles. Nobody noticed except our ever vigilant father and he dutifully got up to check and see if my (then thirteen) year-old brother needed any help. Never before and never since has the answer been “yes”, but that night IT WAS. My poor brother was stranded in the bathroom: no toilet paper, soiled shorts (oh yeah, this episode was one of those bad ones), no way out. To hear my brother tell this story is hilarious: for years he had sighed and rolled his eyes when my dad entered the bathroom to check on him, but that night it was a sigh of utter relief. So, while I am sure that your son is entirely capable of taking care of himself in the restroom… you just never know when he might actually need you 🙂

    Great story, very much enjoyed the read!

  22. We were once watching a grand parade when my 4 y/o had to use the bathroom. Off to Quick Trip. One bathroom for everyone. She doesn’t want me to come in with her. And so she sits. She must be in there for 15 minutes and the line gets longer and longer. Finally, she is through and we escape as fast as we can from the fury of the long line.

  23. Great story and written so well. I laughed so much as I visualised you and your family making the great escape from the Loch Ness monster that was lurking in the library toilets. I think I would have done exactly the same thing and made a run for it. Have you ever been back?

  24. Well, this is just marvelous. You’ve captured the thanklessness, the occasional horror, of parenting, and I just love your voice in telling this. Also, the use of photos was darned funny. Another wonderful layer altogether. Thank you, thank you. More, please.

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  26. What a hilarious story. They way some of us (yes, I plea guilty also) make those stupid actions of which you already know they go wrong the moment you start them. And still you do it. Unbelievable. You’re not alone 😉

  27. I find it interesting that most stories of great humiliation involve a common and important part of our existence…whether its going #1, #2, or perhaps just breaking wind. Why as a society are we embarrassed to make waste? And who started this trend where pooping in public can cause an avalanche of shame if we are caught? I feel for you, man. Thank you for sharing a human experience that we all unfortunately will encounter at some point in our lives. The shame is lessened when we realize everybody poops.

    • You ask some good questions — probably better answered by an anthropologist or a psychologist or some kind of -ologist than by me. You’re right, everybody does it but nobody wants it associated with them. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

  28. Brilliantly told. Reminded me of our fleeing from IKEA when we discovered that our daughter’s shoes were filled with pee. She’d been crawling all over the kids beds, toys, etc. Or the time when I heard boy who worked at one of those indoor-bouncy-ball-climbing gyms for little kids loud whispering to another worker who was handing him paper towels and spray cleaner through the rope enclosures, “Its PEE! PEEE!” I bet those parents were long gone too. I checked out many of your posts and enjoyed them all. You have a gift.

    • Oh, the IKEA ball pit! What a pit of horrors that can be. I know the kids are supposed to be potty trained before you can leave them in the IKEA kids area. But you and I both know people aren’t following that rule. Thanks for reading and for your comments.

  29. Oh my goodness. What is it with 13 year olds and their ability to… that?!? You have no idea ….the stories…the HORROR….the plumber at the house on Christmas Day! Your son has the right idea. Two pieces of advice I have given to my “gifted” son: Never do that at home. Oh and never trust a fart. 😉

  30. I love your writing style! Funny, witty, and poignant. I have no children (other than furry and four-legged children) but can relate on so many levels. The part about being pegged as the one that left the Loch Ness monster is so true. How often we “come upon” something “fowl” or “afoot” in the stall and fear that someone will enter that moment and pin it on us? People we are and people things we all do.

    • Thank you for your kind words about my writing. It always makes me happy to know someone enjoyed a story of mine. I think we write in the hope that readers will feel something when they read, so it’s gratifying to know you did. Yes, the furry four-legged children can also lead us into embarrassing moments. I could write a whole other essay just about walking behind my dog with a plastic bag on conspicuous display hoping that anyone who sees the “leavings” on the sidewalk will simultaneously see my bright blue bag bulging with it’s hideous cargo and know I am innocent.

  31. I often have to drop everything I’m doing when I hear a cry of, “Daddy, come wipe my butt!”
    I say, “Why don’t you do it?”
    He says, “Because it’s a yucky job.”
    Yes. Sigh. Yes it is.

  32. Your writing is absolutely hysterical!! I never had children, I personally have had those “Loch Ness monsters” of poo–so not fun, on many levels!! Congrats on getting FP!!

    • All my best friends read my writing and tell me they like it. It’s the only price for admission. You’re in! Kidding aside, thank you for reading and for taking the time to comment so positively. It encourages me to write more when I hear that people have been entertained by something I’ve done.

    • Thank you for reading and for leaving such a generous and encouraging comment. It’s extremely gratifying to know that something I wrote amused and entertained. You taking the time to tell me that is giving me a gift.


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