It’s 9 PM, and I’m not wearing pants.

I’m 28 years old.  I hold two Masters degrees.  I have one sock on.  I’m splayed out on my couch like a dead bird, eating pickles and rechecking my email for the sixth time that hour while my television babbles in the background.  Astonishingly, I’m single.

My bladder alight with pickle juice and Perrier (for I am a decadent wastrel), I rise from the couch and scuffle down my hall toward the bathroom, where I promptly handle my business.  I flush.  The water swirls around for a moment, and suddenly the porcelain cistern gutters.  My toilet pauses, considers, and proceeds to burble forth what looks to be two weeks worth of old business.

I consider the issue before me for a moment, and decide to flush again.  The evil rises.

I realize that I’m faced with a dilemma as I reach for a third time – my juvenile hot-stove reflex flaring madly (but I’ve grown up, it seems, and manage to stop my hand before it depresses the lever).  My toilet, if left unrendered of its (my) business, will certainly become a wellspring of dysentery in a matter of days.  A noxious mire at least by morning.  Clearly, I need a plunger.

Only, I don’t own a plunger.  I realize in this moment that I’ve lived in my apartment for over two years, plungerlessly, and experience a brief flicker of pride.  This is the first time I’ve ever needed to plunge something.  I did not, until now, require a plunger.  This is a victory.  A moment later I come back down to earth, and my eyes once again fall on the awful galaxy whirling about inside my toilet.

Pride gone.

I look down at the floor in disgust.  I see my bare legs.  My one sock.

I can’t handle the scatological without first dealing with the sartorial – and I really hate pants.  A lot.  I never have pants on, if not mandated.  It’s at this point that I run a little internal equation – one of those brief moments of brutal honesty with one’s self, wherein one’s natural desire to pantslessly procrastinate the unpleasant collides with larger concerns, in my case both hygienic and existential:  What might happen to me if I just leave this here?  What if I slipped out of the room and pretended that it never happened?  Could I actually live with myself if I spent the rest of the night peeing in my bathtub?

I make what I feel is the right decision.  I put pants on and drive to CVS.  Closed.  I drive to Target.  Closed.

I drive to Walmart.  Open.

Walmart is always open.

It’s 11 PM, and I’m padding through a Walmart, looking for a plunger for my shitty toilet.

I never shop at Walmart.  It depresses me terribly to do so.  Inside, young Mexican men push pallets overbrimming with a variety of cheap rickitarackita: tubes of fingerpaint, plastic glitter-filled batons, sidewalk chalk, out-of-season Halloween costumes, and large plastic tubs, each pregnant with a confetti of cheese doodles the color of parking cones.  Blue-vested senior citizens sweep through the aisles like wraiths, and keep their eyes on the scuffed linoleum as I pass by.  Emblazoned across the backs of their vests are bright, yellow smiley faces.  Walmart always feels like Purgatory.

I look in every section one would expect to find a plunger, but can’t find any.  Household cleaning section.  Toiletries.  Paper-goods.  Nothing.  I wander for the better part of 30 minutes before I consider asking someone for help, but find myself completely unable to do so.  I cannot ask someone to tell me where the plungers are. I have to be someone else.  Someone important.  Someone in a rush, who’s got more important things than cold offal waiting for him back home.

It’s 11:45 when I find the plungers.  They’re in a jumbled aisle of miscellaneous, next to the shower curtains, poking out of a plastic wastebasket in perky, rubbery arrangement.  I grab one.  How does one settle on a plunger?  What makes a plunger a good plunger?  Surely, if I’m disappointed with it’s plungability, I cannot bring it back.  Not after what I’ll have put it through.  I resolve myself with the knowledge that each plunger is perfectly identical to the next – one size plunges all – and strike out for the checkout lane.

I’m 10 feet from the checkout lane when I realize that I can’t just buy a plunger.  I need something else in my hands.  I need a prop.  Something I can use to legitimize myself as anyone other than who I am: the creepy plunger man who wants to take his pants off.  I reach my hands out blindly, and they return to me holding toothpaste and a bag of taco chips.  I continue walking.

It’s 11:53 and I’m in line at Walmart holding a plunger, some toothpaste and a bag of taco chips.

Behind me is a middle-aged man holding diapers.  He smells like cigarettes.  At the register is an obese woman, her face a severe (if round) scowl.

In front of me is perhaps one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen in my life.

She’s tall and elegant.  Her hair is long and dark.  Thick and shiny like a pour of black milk.  She looks to be in her late-30s/early-40s, and she wears it well.  She’s dressed impeccably, seriously, in a dark-green suit, and speaks to what appears to be her daughter, who is equally as lovely, in a luscious foreign language.  It sounds like Portuguese – it’s full and lyrical – sprightly in the vowel sounds, yet sluggish in its S’s.

She shouldn’t be there.  She should be in a piano bar somewhere.  Or maybe in a law office, sorting documents with a pen in her hair.  She should be in a noir film, saying something cold and sexy while smoke curls out of her mouth.

The plunger grows hot in my hand.

In my mind, I’m back in the sixth grade.  I’m in a bathroom stall with my pants around my ankles, handling my business.  I hear the door swing open and the squeak of sneakers on tile.  Then I hear nothing.  Four long fingers curl over the top of the stall door, and a moment later a shockingly blonde head pokes over.  Adam G. is watching me handle my business.  His eyes grow as wide as eggs and he laughs at me, a collection of mawkish yawps that echo off the tile, the stall door, the ceiling.  I can feel the vibrations through the toilet seat.  I cover my bare legs with my hands and yell at him to get out.  And my voice cracks when I do it.

He leaves and I sit in silence.  Five minutes later, I’m walking back into my biology class.  Adam G. is in the back row, a grin stretched so far across his face that he looks even more like a lizard than he usually does.  I sit down and he leans forward.

“Did you have a nice poopie?” he asks me, and I smolder with a complex embarrassment.  Part of me is humiliated that he saw me handling my business – my sad little white legs – my underwear around my skinny ankles.  Another part of me is angry that he used the word “poopie”.  I hate him for this word.  I hate him for sounding so juvenile, and I hate his voice for its girlish glissando.  I hate myself for being upset over something so damn stupid.

The woman behind the register calls me, “Sir?” and I step forward.  The beautiful mother and her beautiful daughter are on their beautiful way, laughing together.  I hear the daughter say the word, “kaka,” and I panic inside.  I’m convinced that the entire store is staring at me.  I know that everyone cares that I’m buying a plunger, and that there’s shit in my toilet, and that it came out of me.  They all know Adam G., and they all think it’s terribly funny when he chirps the word “poopie” at me.  I want them to mind their own business.

Then something amazing happens: the obese woman drags the plunger across the scanner and accidentally scrapes the rubber end of it, the plunging end, against her mouth.  She waves her hand in front of her nose, as if swatting at a gnat.

That’s it.

The machine beeps.  She scans my toothpaste and my taco chips, and the machine beeps two more times.  Then she drops them all into a bag and tells me, “$9.54”.

Had it been me who’d inadvertently kissed a plunger in public, I’d have laughed like a spaz and offered it a broken apology.  I’d be flicking my eyes to every surrounding face, gauging for judgment.  But she doesn’t spastically laugh at her own embarrassment.  She doesn’t seem to be embarrassed at all.  Nowhere in her expression is the internal equation that links mouth to plunger to toilet to shit to backpassage.  She doesn’t care – merely drops the bag onto the white counter top and asks me if I have any pennies.

It’s then that I realize that most people probably don’t do what I do.  They don’t transpose the woman in the green suit into the universe where she best belongs. They don’t attempt to divine from the way he’s slouched if the man holding the diapers is happy to go home or not.  If the stench of his cigarettes will get him into trouble with his wife.  People probably don’t worry like I do, either.  They don’t obsess over minutiae, and lose time to fret and wonder.  If they knew an Adam G., they left him in the bathroom where shit belongs.

I smile and hand her a ten.  Then I grab my bag and head out the door.

Outside, the possibly Portuguese are lighting cigarettes and talking their syrupy talk.  I walk past the mother and I smell her perfume in the air.  I pull my keys from my pocket and plop down into my car.

And then I head off for home to handle my business.

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For the last six years, Andrew Panebianco has worked as a roving humanities professor in Philadelphia. He received his MA in writing studies from Saint Joseph’s University and his MFA in creative nonfiction from Antioch LA. He is the section head for CNF at The Splinter Generation. He lives in New Jersey (which isn’t remotely as awful as television would have you believe) and can most often be found drowning in research for his first book on burial and funeral culture. He posts occasionally on his own blog, http://eugenicsbeginswithyou.wordpress.com, the contents of which might bore or horrify you. Or both.

26 responses to “Business As Usual”

  1. Cynthia Hawkins says:

    There’s so much I love about this: the writing, the structure, the humor, the introspection, the humanness, the details of Andrew G.’s fingers curling over the stall door. But mostly I love that when I woke up early this morning to get some writing done, couldn’t manage it, and perused TNB for a little inspiration, I found it.

  2. Dana says:

    Wonderful Andrew! I love your pride at being plungerless for so long, and that Andrew from 6th grade still haunts you – I mean I don’t love that the little bastard haunts you, but it’s nice to know that I’m not the only one with one of those ridiculous internal monologues consistently reminding me of that hideously embarrassing moment decades ago.

    It’s also quite endearing that your snack of choice while vegged out, pantless is pickles.

    • Andrew Panebianco says:

      Embarrassment is kindof amazing when you think about it. No other emotion lasts quite as long. I don’t love like I used to… or lust and hate. But when I remember the time I tried to dance on a cruise ship to impress a girl, and made a complete fool of myself, I still feel just as embarrassed now as I did then. Nothing about it is different.

      I think I found a new thing to write about…

  3. Dana says:

    heh. Somone please fix my punctuation!!

  4. Debbie says:

    I love this piece. “I can’t handle the scatological without first dealing with the sartorial – and I really hate pants. A lot. I never have pants on, if not mandated.” I laughed when I read this for I despise clothes of any sort. Unfortunately I’ve heard on many occasions that I should not be without them – ever. Oh well, such is life.

    I agree with Dana, it’s nice to know that I’m not the only one who constantly hears those silly internal monologues mocking me from years (sometimes just days or weeks) ago.

  5. JB says:

    Some nice prose here.

    Yeah, guys who use the word “terribly” probably have no business in a lowly Wal-Mart.

  6. Aaron Gansky says:

    It takes a special kind of dude to write so eloquently and engagingly about fecal matter. Bravo. Some real good shit here. Pardon the pun.

  7. Jude says:

    Ah, what a messy situation you found yourself in…but you write about it so eloquently.

    Did the plunger solve the problem?

  8. Simon Smithson says:

    Andrew! Welcome aboard! You and your plunger make a great addition to the site.

    I don’t know – maybe everyone carries those tiny little fears and embarrassments around with them all the time. I know I certainly do.

    Maybe it’s a 28-year-old tertiary-educated white dude thing.

    Probably.

    • Andrew Panebianco says:

      For the record: “28-year-old tertiary-educated white dude” is going to be my standard bio from now on. Greatest. Self-description. Ever.

      (Even though I’m actually freshly 29)

  9. Becky Palapala says:

    Who knew high diction and scat made such capable counterparts?

    Just about blew out my ear drums stifling my laughter.

    I’m totally immune to consumer embarrassment. I wonder if it has something to do with being a female? Like, I think buying tampons and other feminine products may build a general immunity.

    Maybe I’m wrong.

    This was hilarious. Bravo and welcome.

  10. Andrew Panebianco says:

    It has always been my highest ambition to crap up the ivory tower a bit. And I’m glad I could nearly bring about cochlear rupture in the process.

    As for buying ladyproducts… I have no idea how you do it. I have a hard enough time with toilet paper.

    Wow. I’m just telling the internet all kinds of things it doesn’t need to know about me today.

    • Becky says:

      Perfectly acceptable here.

      We may even send you for tampons. For your own good and strictly in the interests of your personal growth, of course.

      And because we are lazy. And we are also out of smokes. And TP.

  11. Zara Potts says:

    What lovely words you use here, Andrew. The woman with the hair like ‘a pour of black milk’ -Gorgeous.
    Oh, and spaz – I love it when people use spaz. Entirely underrated!
    Welcome aboard – This is going to be fun!

  12. Reba Jay says:

    This was really great. Really really great. Sorry I can’t be as eloquent as you, its damn hot here.

  13. Reba Jay says:

    This was really great. Really really great. Sorry I can’t be as eloquent as you, it is damn hot here.

  14. The evil does indeed rise. The possibly Portuguese continue to do their thing. Nothing good ever happens in a piano bar.

  15. Karen Martin says:

    I loved this. Thanks. I laughed. I feel relieved that someone else is as freaked out as I am about … ummm … you know … that sort of thing … And the mortifying disjunct between the private and the public that supermarket queues precipitate. Great writing. Moves lightly, but there’s courage and tenderness in it.

  16. sheree says:

    Wonderful humor! Thanks for the excellent read and smile.

  17. Joe Daly says:

    I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit to chuckling quite a bit at the scatological undercurrents. And currents. And overcurrents.

    My friends and I have long said that scatological humor is always funny. Even people who don’t openly laugh at poo jokes are dying inside. In fact, if you walk by a closed door and hear laughing inside, it is quite possibly someone who is finally enjoying the opportunity to laugh at a shit joke they heard sometime earlier, and upon which they looked with great disdain.

    Welcome aboard!

  18. Marni Grossman says:

    I loved this. Nothing happened. You bought a plunger at WalMart. And yet. I LOVED this. Oddly beautiful.

  19. jennifer rhodes says:

    classic panebianco. delicious prose, hearty laughs and some introspection on the side. my compliments to the chef.

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