Excerpt of POP!, by Mark PolanzakBy TNB Fiction
April 26, 2016
The dudes who remodeled my mom’s master bathroom forgot to take away the old pink toilet. So there it stood, in the middle of our front yard—a constant amidst the turning, falling leaves of autumn.
We figured they’d be back for it, the toilet. After a week or so of rousing suspicion among the other residents of Green Street, the unspoken realization hit us: that pink throne was our problem now.
One crisp November afternoon, my mom and brother and I all found ourselves standing around the thing with steaming cups of coffee in our hands. My mug had a chip and read: “Nobody’s Perfect.”
“How heavy is it?” My brother tried his best to surmise the toilet’s heft with his mind then tilted it with his free hand.
“Don’t hurt yourself,” cautioned my mother.
“Well?” I wanted to hear that it was no problem; that Devon would throw it on his back and carry it to wherever hoppers go to rest in peace.
“Like a boulder,” he said, sliding a timid step back from it, sipping his coffee.
We just stared at the thing for a while, in silence. A leaf landed on it. We eyed each other.
Later on, we were back in separate rooms of the house, all of us pretty sure that that toilet situation would just take care of itself.
* * *
If my dad hadn’t gone and had a heart attack and died during a tennis date last winter, we would have let him deal with the throne’s removal. It was his after all. Well, we all conducted business with it, over the years, the taco nights. But my dad, he used it exclusively, never settling for a leak in the downstairs half bath, or maybe just a gassy false alarm in the upstairs hall john. The rest of us were equal opportunity with our ones and twos.
The only time I saw my father naked, he was draining the lizard into that pink toilet. He was upset, I remember. I was little; I flung open the door and froze. My old man looked up; he sighed; he breathed my name. He was never angry before or after that. Something cosmic transpired between my dad and the pink toilet that my encroaching upon disrupted. Also, outside that moment, I never saw him vulnerable. Except, of course, he was vulnerable and probably pretty pissed when his heart went and dropped the ball at deuce point.
* * *
Besides the toilet on the lawn, there were other new features at the Paterson household. For one, my brother was there all the time. He bailed on his life across the country, in San Francisco, after Dad bailed on his for good. When December rolled around, Devon began to pick up the pieces, got a marketing gig in Beantown, started saving for an apartment. I was in my senior year at a ridiculous private school, applying to ridiculous colleges. California schools looked good junior year, but I narrowed the list to campuses within driving distance to our house, to our pink toilet. Mom, despite talking vaguely of renewing her RN credits, stayed locked away in her room more and more. When I returned from school, she would be wrapped in her red and black flannel robe, in bed watching bad Lifetime movies, or at the computer googling involved French recipes that I certainly never had the pleasure of eating.
We were curious when the first snowfall began covering the pink toilet—would the thing go out of sight, out of mind? Early one morning, the first flakes made a white and pink polka-dotted sculpture of the toilet in our yard.
“Shit,” shouted my brother, and I hadn’t sensed that he was standing behind me, watching through the window, too. “We need to take a picture.” He ran off, then appeared in the yard with his camera, motioning for me to come out, and mouthing bring the paper. I grabbed the Sunday Globe and trotted down the steps.
We met up at the toilet.
“Sit on it,” he said.
“On the toilet?”
“Like you’re taking a shit.”
I lifted the seat.
“Don’t actually crap in the thing. Just sit on the lid.”
I did so.
“Now read the paper.” Devon danced around and snapped photos from all angles. At first, he was framing the shots for whole minutes, preserving the moment, the image, me on the toilet. He looked so focused, like he was staring at a developing cure in his Petri dish, Petri crapper. All of a sudden, I wanted to try and deal with it like my brother; I got into the whole charade. I mimed unzipping and fire hosing it. I pretended to barf, praying to the porcelain God. I laughed. My bro laughed. I faked all embarrassed like getting barged in on. Posing for a swirly proved too difficult. When we were through, Devon out of film, I depressed the handle, folded the paper under my arm, and whistled my way back inside with Devon chuckling and winding his camera behind me.
At the new toilet, relieving myself of what all the pretend bathroom business had conjured, I thought, so that’s how it happens, that’s how people wind up with junk on display around their property. Something is kind of too heavy or annoying to remove, then you get attached to it. It was sad and scary that though my dad was a doctor and I was in private school, none of that matters when you’ve got a toilet in your front yard. Presto—White Trash.
* * *
It was a white Christmas that year, first in a decade we were told. Mom said we were too grown-up to get presents, to get a tree, to put up the little white lights, and we agreed; I still didn’t know or care exactly what a Yule log was. I didn’t want any gifts anyhow, at least nothing that she could have given me. We gave Mom a nosegay of daisies and yellow roses though, and, of course, she cried, and Christmas was saved only when Devon rolled up an eternally constipated snowman to sit on the snowtoilet. He called Mom out to see, and she laughed. When she laughed, it was good. I watched through the window, her breath a misty cloud, then gone. The snowman strained. It was good for her and for Devon.
After New Year’s, a new orange bottle fluttered into existence on the white laminate countertop of our kitchen. Mom called them her happy pills. She didn’t seem to be taking the proper amount at first. It is slightly more upsetting, I noticed, to have someone around who is too happy rather than too sad, especially when you know they’re manufactured smiles. Either way, throughout that winter, Mom was out of bed before me, with breakfast made and everything.
“Am I doing an OK job with you, sweetie?” she asked, over scrambled eggs and coffee.
“Of course, mom. You’re the best.” I didn’t look up.
“Good. I’m so proud of you, you know.”
“Dad is proud of you, too.”
“You can talk to him, you know.” She brushed my hair back with the tips of her fingers. My head, a block of ice.
Along with my mother’s newfound energy came a confusing and weird spirituality. This involved, as far as I could tell, a mixture of referring to Dad as still with us and watching the X Files. After an episode in which the ghost of a little girl keeps appearing to her mother, and the ghost-girl helps solve her own murder, my mother declared: “I believe that.” I told her to hang a shingle, do some readings.
One night, my eyes popped open, awoken by what I thought to be, please God, a scantily clad and thieving nymph. Out in the yard, under the gently falling flakes, in her pale blue nightgown, my mother stared intently at the pink toilet, part of which had peeked out from the snow. The silver handle glowed in the spotlight of the full moon. I stood next to my mom in my boxers and slippers, glancing at her, then the toilet, then her. Her eyes were bright and fixed on the thing. She smiled a calm and all-knowing little smile, and a tear rolled down her moon white cheek. I put my shivering hand on her warm and steady shoulder.
“Sweetie?” she whispered. “Did you hear it flush too?”
* * *
Devon moved into his new pad in the Fens that February. His bathroom had a claw foot tub and a red hopper. “Close but no TP roll,” he said, indicating the thing. He developed and framed all his toilet art, and they were the first things to go up. Beautiful black and white and vivid color. Some shots of leaves swirling about the thing went in the kitchen. Some of the thing half encased in snow went in the hall. One with me reading the paper went in the bathroom. He hung with care. The one picture of the toilet in a lightning storm went in his bedroom. Last, he placed an ancient photograph of us, the smiling family, on his nightstand.
“So, that’s how important we are,” I said, looking from the tiny ancient guy to the gallery of pink toilets.
“Nothing matters more. Come here.” Devon must have misheard, since he was spreading his arms for a hug.
* * *
God, my girlfriend sucked. Of course, she was on student government. Of course, she was an A student at a ridiculously competitive private school. Of course, she was pretty and happy. Of course, she sang in the a capella group. Of course, somehow, she knew how not to look like an idiot while dancing. Of course, she was involved in the theater department while balancing her commitments to softball and field hockey. Of course, she founded the all-female anglers society. Of course, she was a freshman mentor. And of course, she sucked.
When she marched around the corner into Gleason hall, where I was enjoying a doughnut, during one of my free periods, I just knew that she wanted me to do something. And not anything useful, like make out in the music rooms, but be productive or whatever, participate.
She smiled her hey-I-seem-to-have-too-many-teeth smile and waved an I’m-so-excited-to-see-that-you’re-not-busy wave, which, frankly, I didn’t agree with. The doughnut. She sat down and flung off her gargantuan purple backpack.
“Baby,” she said, and it didn’t sound sweet; it was a serious, business “baby.” “There’s a freshman boy whose father…” She trailed off, sliding her eyes around like fishing lures. “His father passed on.”
“Bought the farm. Checked out. Kicked the bucket. Ate his last doughnut.” I shouted them out while she cast treble hooks through me. “It’s died, baby.” I employed the business-baby, too.
“Fine. His father died. Anyway, I told Mr. Sweat that you’d talk with him if he needed to talk, and apparently, the boy wants to talk. Can you talk?” She grabbed my free hand.
“Mr. Sweat’s first name. Is it Richard?”
It took her a second, but when she got it, I was almost in love again. Soon enough though, she was mad at me like always: telling me that she was no longer asking, that I don’t do anything anyhow, that I’m always hanging around after school, that I’m avoiding activities and home, that I haven’t been to any club meetings in months, that the boy’s name isn’t Dick either, and that I had to meet him after classes, in the bio wing. Then, she was gone, off to her million other obligations, me being one that she was sucking at.
“This doughnut tastes bitter. And where’s that side of betrayal I ordered?” No one else was free that period to hear my quips.
* * *
So, I found myself in the bio wing, surrounded by standing plastic skeletons, deconstructable mockups of human hearts and human brains, and big maps of the human body with red and blue veins squeezing pink striated muscle tissue. I was studying the urethra and bladder when I heard the kid.
“You Martin,” the kid said.
“You the kid whose father passed on?”
He didn’t respond. He just stood there, in the doorway, looking down and kicking at the checkered black and white linoleum with his bucks.
“You got a mom?” I asked.
“Man, do we have a lot in common. I got a mom, an older brother, and, of course, the dead dad. I got it all!”
The kid went and sat down at a big black table with Bunsen burners all over it. I sat behind the teacher’s desk, spun a metal replica of an atom, then folded my hands.
“How’s it been?” I wanted to hear that it was nothing at all; that this kid would just throw his sadness on his back and carry it off to wherever you take sadness.
“I hate everybody and everything.”
No dice. “How’d it go down?”
“Lungs? Muscle? Ear?”
“Brain.” He fiddled with a Bunsen burner.
“Brain. Heart.” I held up a piece of hippocampus and a left ventricle. “Both major players in the body. Both hugely important to human survival.” I juggled the bits of organ along with a rubber large intestine. “Slow death. Surprise death. Still dead. We all bought a ticket, kid: a one-way ticket to the bone yard.”
The kid just sat there, in his required school tie, looking down, looking scared. He was coming to me. Boy, was he lost, this kid, who was about to torch himself on the Bunsen burner because he was now a zombie. Just going through the motions. And why shouldn’t he be sad? Why shouldn’t he be scared? He obviously has no idea how to deal with having his life all flipped around and slammed in the toilet. Then flushed. Then plunged. He didn’t expect that. He didn’t deserve that. Just a kid who got robbed.
Then, something miraculous happened. Someone, something, some god spoke through me. “Everyone finds some way to deal with a loss. My brother, for example, he has busied himself with a job, a goal, and has been doing his best to laugh at memories of his father. My mother, after losing her husband, she has sought some medical help, developed a connection to a power greater than herself, and she is essentially making it now. And they’ve done this on their own, found these solaces. Truth is, kid, this is kind of an individual thing, this coping with loss. There’s no right way. And no one can help you find your way. Everyone has his or her own technique, method, or process. You can try to do what others do. You can observe what your mother does, but maybe it’s not your way. Perhaps, for you, it will not come quickly, but listen: it will come. Try to believe: it will come.” When I escaped my trance, it was just me and the fake human parts left in the room. I put my hand on a skeleton’s shoulder. He wobbled.
* * *
That spring, when snow melted off branches, revealing oaks and maples; when icicles slipped from gutters and basketball nets; when grass rippled out in soccer fields and birds sang again, so, too, did the pink toilet bloom, emerging from its icy hibernation.
Everything would burn bright green that summer: the leaves, the blades of grass, the ponds deep in the woods. Devon would take a stroll in the common with a new girlfriend, who worked as a biomedical engineer, and he would be fascinated by the fact that she wore a lab coat and worked on curing diseases. Mom would renew her RN credits, start part time at Mass General. She would make a meal that had frogs’ legs. They would both come with me to Accepted Candidates Day at college and marvel at all the buildings and opportunities. My girlfriend would win several awards at graduation, wear special neon tassels, and lie to me, saying that she was most proud of our relationship. I would break up with her as soon as I got to school in the fall. I would meet girls that didn’t ask anything of me, but just wanted to get drunk and it on. I would bump a lot of speed. I would steal a golf cart from campus security, park it on the stage of the auditorium, and I wouldn’t be caught for this. I would get by, majoring in business, and I would move close to my mother and brother after getting my BS. We would watch the Red Sox with new girlfriends. Mom would bring us good food to our apartments. She would meet another doctor, and he would treat her well and never make me or Devon feel weird. Devon would have a baby before I did, and he would name him after our dad. I would be his godfather and make jokes about the mafia. There would be new houses purchased. There would be new graduations to attend. There would be laughs, and there would be cries. There would be a world, and it would spin lazily through a black void.
And the pink toilet would grow pipes, roots into the soil of our front yard. Tall grass would grow up around it. Mom would place nosegays of daisies and yellow roses in its basin, a good planter. The pink toilet would be there every time I returned to my childhood home. My wife would joke that she needed to pee so bad that she’d use the pink one. Our Christmas photos would be taken around the pink throne. Thanksgiving cigars would be smoked around it. Somehow, the pink toilet would look beautiful and good in our front yard, after years and years and years. Most of the time though, we’d be too busy or far away to think about the pink toilet. And it would wait, through wind and rain and snow and lightning for us to remember. Everyone and everything would live long and happy and healthy. The toilet would live forever and ever in our yard. In our hearts.
STUPID. FUCKING. THING.
My computer finishes the reading. I’m plucking a Telecaster my dad gave me by the end of the story.
My father was a doctor, an anesthesiologist, yes. I was at a ridiculously exclusive and expensive private school, yes. My brother did move from San Francisco back to the Boston area and lived in an apartment near Fenway, yes. And we did in fact have a pink toilet that the dudes forgot to take away, yes. However, the toilet never wound up in the yard, and my father never used it. The pink toilet was in the “second floor hall John.” The only toilet that my father even acknowledged was in the master bathroom, which was in fact lime green and never got remodeled. The toilet is in my mom’s garage to this day, and none of us give a damn about it. It has no meaning, except in the story. In life, it’s just a toilet. My brother did mention wanting to place the toilet in the yard after reading the story. He felt we could ascribe new meaning to it. He was chuckling when he suggested this. I don’t know how I feel about it.
The shitty truth behind this story is that I wrote it with so many external devices in my head that, to me, it is essentially bloodless. Maybe I pulled the wool in others’ readings. But. Here’s how the piece came to be: My writing-school poet-friend read me the Beckett story “Dante and the Lobster” in his amazing, crummy apartment in the desert with its blue cement floors during one of our chess nights, which many times devolved into drinking too many beers and reading stories and poems. I lost a critical mass of those matches. I immediately wanted to write a story with a final line like the one in the Beckett story: “It is not.” As powerful as it is strong; as funny as it is humorous; as weird as it is odd! That last line shows an authorial hand slamming down and declaring a truth from some godlike point of view. The story’s about a day in Dublin in which the viewpoint character reads some Dante, then makes lunch, then buys a lobster, then comes home to his aunt’s house to cook the lobster. When the VC realizes that this lobster lived its life, made its love, battled its peril, and survived the wild ocean simply to be boiled here and now in his aunt’s kitchen, our VC hesitates to take the lobster’s life. His aunt mollifies our VC, explaining that the lobster’s death will be a quick one. “It is not,” unmollifies Beckett, explaining to the reader that life and death are painful and long. I don’t feel that bad about starting my own story with the hope of emulating a master or due to a specific artistic inspiration from a master, because Beckett was copying Joyce. What does concern me about my own story is that it is formulaic. The idea of the story is to link a super Big Life Experience (DEATH!) to something small and seemingly meaningless (toilet). It works. The two get linked, and the symbol of the story is ironic and used to show how this family reacted to death by reacting instead, base-artfully, to a toilet. That’s craft. It’s all craft. When you can see craft in a story, something’s way more than wrong. And the end, with the shouting and swearing? That’s way off, because I wasn’t angry at seventeen. I was nothing at seventeen. I was a zombie, of course. So, that’s wrong. The idea is a formula. The inspiration is someone else’s story. And the feeling is inaccurate, I think. Actually, the protagonist never says how he feels. That’s the problem.
I will do it, though. It is my goal to express it the right way. I’ve gone looking for a way to tell this story everywhere, which is a reworked line from a Denis Johnson story.
My dad’s spirit lies not in a magical toilet.
MARK POLANZAK’S stories have appeared in Third Coast, The Southern Review, and The American Scholar, among others. His fiction won second place in the 2014 Italo Calvino Prize. His hybrid memoir, POP!, is out March 22, 2016 from Stillhouse Press. He is a founding editor for draft: the journal of process, and teaches English at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
Adapted from POP!, by Mark Polanzak, Copyright © 2016 by Mark Polanzak. With the permission of the publisher, Stillhouse Press.
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