Saturday, April 28, 2012

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Poop Story: Take Two

The first essay I ever wrote was about me crapping my pants in high school. This story was a bit of a hit around my undergrad English department. Posted is my attempt at revising this old favorite.

I moved in with Grandma during the winter of ’94. She gave me the bedroom uncle Jack and Dad once shared. It was a small room with a twin bed that consumed most of the floor space. A painting of a young boy in coveralls standing beside a spotted dog hung next to the alder dresser. The carpet was an off white, and a gold colored Queen Anne style chair sat next to the closet.

Grandpa had been dead for two years. His awards for land management hung next to the kitchen door. The silver toaster he bought in ’77 sat next to the refrigerator. And the red awning he constructed was draped over the patio. The farm equipment and the land he tilled it with surrounded Grandma’s red brick home. Sometimes Grandma sat in a white vinyl rocking chair and looked out the patio windows like she could still see Grandpa working in the alfalfa field. 

 Grandma’s home was quite. Each morning she got up at 6AM and listened to the local news on KSL-AM while making toast, a hot cup of Pero (a coffee substitute), and Wheat Hearts. Tuesdays she went to Ream’s grocery store and Sundays she went to church. She wore sweatpants and white shoes and in the winter she wore a faded yellow coat. When she hugged me, her arms trembled, and so did her lips when she kissed my cheek. Her home had the same flower print carpet and brown and white tile it did in ’82, the year I was born. She was dependable, unwavering…the rock of my young life. Moving in with grandma granted me the calm consistency I needed. And I think it gave her something to live for. Six months before her death she said, “I didn’t care much about anything after Phil died. You gave me a reason to keep trying.”

After Dad left I felt like a fist was pressed tight against my stomach and rarely did I sleep more than two hours without waking. I quickly became used to Grandma’s quiet home. And so did my body. I was less anxious and I often slept through the night without waking. But when Dad called and rattled on with a drunken slur, or when someone asked how Dad was doing, or at night, when my mind slipped into troubled memories of Dad’s lazy blank stare, I felt that fist in my stomach again. I couldn’t sleep. And within a few minutes to a few hours, I’d have a heavy fit of diarrhea. It always started with a cold sweat and cramping that was followed by an immediate trip to a restroom.

The diarrhea was triggered by thoughts of my father, so I tried not to think about him. Around West Provo, I avoided people he knew. Two photos of Dad sat on Grandma’s mantel. In one, he was a young boy sitting on Grandpa’s lap. In another, Dad was in a cap and gown standing on Grandma’s front lawn. I hid the photos in the hall closet beneath the guest bed sheets. If songs by Jonny Cash or Hank Williams Jr., Dad’s favorite singers, played on the radio, I changed the station. And I changed the channel when M*A*S*H or Lonesome Dove came on the TV. The transition from Dixon Middle School to Provo High created a large pool of kids that were not from my neighborhood. It was my sophomore year and I was relived by how many students never mentioned my father. Dad had been in and out of my life for nearly five years and it only seemed fitting that my body would reflect the turmoil that surrounded me.

I can recall several instances where if the toilet had been two-steps farther I’d have shit myself. It was not uncommon for me to quickly trot from the restroom door to the toilet with my right hand holding my cheeks together. I often left class at a dead run. When teachers asked why, I said, “God told me to leave” or “I saw Trent Reznor in the hall” or “I’m expecting a pizza.” I told them anything but the simple fact that I suddenly had to shit. I didn’t want anyone to ask me questions about my diarrhea because it might lead to a conversation about my father, which might lead to more diarrhea. It was a twisted circle. There were enough things wrong with my family, that I didn’t want something to be wrong with me. So I lied.

Lying about my diarrhea lead to me lying about other things. I told stories of kick flips and half pipes, gunfights and stolen cars, dirty women and orgies. I told friends the first time I smoked pot was with Tom Petty, a 44-year-old aging rock star. I’d never tried pot, and the only Tom Petty song I knew was “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”, a song I didn’t know was about pot. I was full of shit, a fact that was confirmed regularly as I crouched over the toilet.  Before my trouble with diarrhea, I held pride in my honesty. And perhaps the reason I told outlandish lies was because I’d never acquired a talent for deceit. Or maybe I was just mimicking my father—a man known for his dishonesty.

What I am the most ashamed of is that I also lied to my grandmother. I lied to her about cutting school, where I went in the evenings, what movies I watched, the music I listened too, how often I said my nightly prayers, grades, and who my friends were. The lies were outlandish. I told her the school gave me a scholarship for a two day trip to Space Camp, when really, I just wanted to spend the weekend at a friends house. I wrecked my bike and came home with a black eye and scuffed knees. I told her a bear along the Provo River Trail attacked me. I often spent long moments in the restroom, crouching over grandma’s toilet, grunting and sweating. I always turned on the tub faucet to hide the sound. When Grandma knocked on the door and asked what I was doing, I told her I was taking a bath. She would make an accusing grunt and then walk away.

“Why do you take so many baths?” she once asked.
“I don’t know.” I said. “I just like to be clean.”

She probably assumed I was masturbating. Sadly, my problems went beyond personal gratification. I doubt Grandma would have fully understood what was going on in my body. And I doubt she would have made the correlation between my family stress and my diarrhea. But I know she would have tried to help. Was it the thrill of lying that I enjoyed? Does every adolescent go through a dishonesty phase? Grandma’s jaw always went slack with an annoyed grunt when I lied. I don’t know if her reaction was a result of irritation, or if it was because I reminded her of my father.

Fall of ’97 Dad was arrested for driving under the influence. This was the first of many arrests that would eventually lead to him spending 18 months in Jail. The morning after Grandma didn’t eat breakfast or listen to the radio. She made me toast, a hard-boiled egg, and hot chocolate. Here eyes were heavy from not sleeping. I ate at the bar, as she stood across from me, right hand leaning against the sink, her face somewhere between anger and remorse. “I bailed your Dad out of jail last night,” she said. Then she paused for a moment, shifted her weight to the other hip, and said, “I don’t know what he was thinking.”

This seemed like information she would’ve kept from me. Grandma was a reserved and soft-spoken. Few visitors stopped by the house, and rarely did she chat on the phone. A week might go by and I was the only person she talked to. I think she liked it that way. She used to talk about walking for hours along dirt roads without seeing another soul. “I miss that,” she said. “Now a days, there’re too many people around.”

When she did speak, she was always honest and sometimes tactless. At 16, when I grew my hair out, she said I looked like, “a damn hippy.” And later that year, when I brought home my first girl friend, she said, “that girl is trash.” Both assessments were accurate.

We’d lived together for three years and rarely did we talk about Dad. When he was brought up, Grandma became quiet. Then she looked down, one hand nervously cupping the other and said, “I don’t know what he does with his time.” Perhaps the reason she never mentioned Dad was because she was keeping information from me, protecting me from the hard fact I already knew, that Dad was an addict. Maybe she knew that saying something about Dad would mean saying too much, so the best option was to not speak at all.

She told me Dad was arrested on I-15, somewhere between Salt Lake City and Draper. He’d just left a bar and was driving with an open beer. He called her around 1AM from the Salt Lake Jail.

“He said it was a misunderstanding,” she said. He told her the open beer in his truck wasn’t his and the liquor on his breath was mouthwash. She rubbed the heels of her hands against her eyes and mumbled something. The only words I could make out were “bull shit.”

The details were stated matter-of-factly, and I wonder if she wanted me to know that he lied. Like it was best for me to know. We looked at each other for a moment, and it seemed we both knew that he called Grandma rather then his wife because he didn’t want her to know. I know Grandma didn’t tell her. This was his fourth marriage. The last think Grandma wanted was for her son to get divorced again.

Grandma told me to finish my breakfast and get ready for school.  Then she left the room. It was the most we’d talked about Dad since I moved in.
I didn’t finish my egg. I got dressed and sat on the lip of my bed and waited for my stomach to turn. But it didn’t. I didn’t feel anxiety or cramps. I didn’t buckle over and run to the rest room. I just sat, palms flush against the bedspread, and gazed at the painting of the little boy and the dog. I wondered how often Dad looked at that same painting. The sun was shining on the boy’s right side, shadows to the left. He didn’t appear happy, sad, fearful, or excited. He didn’t appear to be thinking at all, his face soft and emotionless, his mind as clear as bathwater. And for a moment I imagined myself in that painting and wondered what it would feel like to not think about Dad.

Later that morning I was playing softball at Fox Field. It was located across the football field, the tennis courts, and North Freedom Boulevard. I was as far away from the school buildings as possible without actually leaving campus.

I caught a soft ball, and it hit the glove hard, the pressure vibrating along my elbow and into my bowls. It knocked something lose. My stomach turned, and instantly, I needed a restroom. In that moment, I don’t remember thinking about Dad’s lean frame hunched over a police car, his calloused hands is cuffs. But I do recall thinking about it most of the morning.

I didn’t ask the coach if I could leave, I didn’t explain to the team why they would no longer have a first baseman, and I didn’t throw the ball to the pitcher so it could remain in play. I dropped the glove and ball and ran.

I reached the cross walk of North Freedom Boulevard. As I waited for the light, my legs marched in place, hips swinging up and down as though my cheeks were hands struggling to hold hot caramel.

It was 10 AM. North was a business district, west a hospital, and east Brigham Young University. There was heavy traffic. I had to wait for the light to change. Minutes felt like hours as by bowls turned. I said a little prayer in my head. It was filled with urgency and remorse for past wrongs. I offered to trade previous transgressions for a red light. Just before the traffic stopped, I thought, “Please don’t let this happen. I don’t want to talk to Dad.”

Although I lived with Grandma, Provo High listed Dad as my guardian. Freshman year I got in a fight, and they called Dad. Same thing happened when I was caught skipping class. I feared that if I shit my pants, they would call Dad. Just the thought of hearing his voice made my stomach turn a little more.

The light changed and I sprinted. This seemed like a good idea. But it was not the best idea. It takes a surprising amount of effort to keep from shitting your pants. So I ran in short burst, slowing every dozen strides to flex my cheeks and regain the ground I lost. I can only imagine an outsider’s perception of me. One moment my hands were waving franticly. My legs were in a dead sprint. The next I stopped and walked while clinching my butt. I must’ve looked like a madman. 

There were two restrooms on the west side of Provo High. One was in the new building. It was clean and had an air freshener. The other smelled of grease, saw dust, and urine because it was next to the wood shop. Several of the toilet seats were missing and the sinks were coated in black grime. Naturally, the latter was the closest.

I walked through the building doors and instinctively, like a bear knows when her cubs are in danger, my right hand grabbed my butt cheeks and pinched them together in a primal move. It worked. I was going to make it. Just before the restroom doors, my stomach calmed. I felt fine. And then I made a bad decision. I got greedy. I headed to the cleaner restrooms.

Two steps later it happened. Just as fast as soft-serve chocolate-flavored ice cream comes out when you pull the lever, my gym shorts overflowed. But what came out was not cold. It had the consistency and temperature of beef gravy. Gym shorts were no match for this torrent. I lost it in my gym shorts, and found it in my socks. I tried to stop my onslaught of rectal rebellion, but it was no use. So I just stood there, hands on hips, and let it happen.

I went to the restroom, took a deep breath, and cleaned myself with toilet paper. The bulk of the damage was in the back. My green shorts had taken on an army camouflage look and the back half of my socks where a brownish black. From the front, I looked normal. I thought about my options. I couldn’t tell teachers because they would call Dad. And I couldn’t tell another student for obvious reasons. I decided to call Grandma. My plan was to walk to the pay phone, keeping my back to the wall. If someone confronted me… I’d lie. Classes were still in session so the hall was clear.

 I kept my back to the wall and made my way to the west entrance of the school. Ahead of me, there was an open classroom door. If crossed, all the people in the room would see my shitty pants. I imagined how it would play out. One kid would notice first and scream, Hey, that kid shit his pants! And then the laughter would come with periodic damning statements mingled in such as: He smells like a nursing home, He’ll never get laid now, and the worst one of all coming from the attractive brunette in the front row, And I used to like you. I quickly crossed the hall. I was forced to do this half a dozen times before making it to the pay phone.

Once outside, I called Grandma collect. I leaned my back against the brick wall, and kept my voice down. The operator asked if Grandma would accept the charges and she replied with, “I suppose,” her voice weighted with irritation.
 “Grandma,” I said, “I need you to pick me up. Right now.”
When she asked why, I told her some ridiculous story about a bomb threat at the high school. She paused for a moment. Drew in a deep breath and said, “Horse shit. Are you in trouble?”
I didn’t respond. Was this how things played out with Dad? He must have called collect the night before, when he asked for bail money. At the time, I didn’t understand why she sounded so irritated. Now I wonder if she expected the call to be more bad news, the sound of an operator asking if she will accept the charges must have felt like a fist in her gut. My lie probably sounded like Dad’s.
“Damn it,” she said. “You’re just like your father. Whenever he gets in trouble, he tells some jackass story and I come running like the cavalry. I’m through.”
 She was breathing hard and I could hear the click of her dentures coming lose and then snapping back into place, something she often did while anxious.
“Is that what you want,” she said, “to get locked up like your father? Cuz that’s where you’re headed?”
“I crapped my pant’s,” I said, with sincerity, and honesty, and fear.
“I don’t believe you,” she said.

She told me I was a grown boy and they don’t have those kinds of problems. We went back and fourth for a while, her attempting to uncover the truth, and me repeating it in a forceful whisper, hopeful that it would eventually sink in. This went on for sometime. Eventually, I started to cry.
“Please, please, come and get me.” I said, “And bring a towel.” It must have been the sorrow in my voice because she finally agreed.

Entering the school once again, I made my way to the front doors.  Luckily, I ran into no one. Once outside, I sat with my back against a brick wall and waited. I smelled terrible.
Time passed. I told a math instructor I was ill and waiting for a ride; I told the parent of another student that my house was on fire and I was waiting for a firefighter to come pick me up; I told the truancy officer my brother had an accident on a roller coaster. “A bolt came loose and busted him in the head,” I said. He wished me luck.

I was scanning the road for Grandma’s gray Buick when I saw Samantha Jones. I was in love with her, and had been since 7th grade. She was short and skinny and enjoyed Megadeth and Metallica. Her glasses were thick with heavy brown frames that matched her hair. She was dangerous and achievable, just the right mix of nerd and rebel. Sometimes she hugged me. At night, my imagination projected flickering films of Samantha onto the ceiling: Samantha ascending stairs, gracefully, naked, always naked, but the stairs changed to marble or oak. Beautiful stairs that I certainly didn’t own. I liked to think of her hair and how it would feel between my fingers.

Samantha crossed University Avenue holding a sack of donuts. She must have been cutting class. I tried not to make eye contact, but it was hard not to look at her. While yelling my name, she waived her free hand and jumped up and down. She ran to me and put her arms around my neck.

At fifteen, a hug from Samantha Jones was everything. I wanted to get excited by her soft body pressed against mine. I wanted to smell her hair and perfume. But all I could smell was shit.  We separated and exchanged a glance.  She knew.  Her nose scrunched as she swatted it with her shirtsleeve.
“What smells?” She said.
“I don’t smell anything.”
She leaned in and took a sniff. I waved my hand in front of her nose. 
“You smell terrible. Did you do shit yourself?”
A bead of sweat slid down my face and rolled between my lips. The salt made them stick together. My hands shook. I was a mix of anxiety and cold sweat, love and lust. For months after this moment, I felt like a mumbling anchorman or a stumped presidential candidate. I felt like there must have been something I could have said that would have shifted the situation into my favor. But even now, as I write, I don’t know what that lie would be.

With a large smile on her face she grabbed me by the left shoulder and attempted to turn me around.  “Let me see your butt.”
Samantha tried to peek over one shoulder and than the other as I swiftly moved my hips from side to side. She asked what was on my socks, and I told her it was mud.
“If you didn’t shit yourself than what smells like a turd?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “You?”
It was a childish refute. So pathetic. Samantha’s mouth opened. She took two steps back and clinched her fists.  Her narrow eyes and rigid shoulders, the way her jaw moved from side seemed to say, You did shit yourself. And as she walked away, right hand clinching the bag of doughnuts, I knew she was going to tell everyone.

Years later, as I was writing the first draft of this essay, I ran into Samantha and let her read what I’d wrote. Shitting my pants was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life, and she claimed not to recall any of it.

Grandma honked, her gray Buck was parked before the curb. She leaned across the seat, opened the passenger door, and said, “Get in.”
I stretched the towel across the seat and sat down. As we drove away, Grandma rolled down the windows and told me I smelled rotten. The wind roared in on her tired face, the heaviness of her eyes showed how little sleep she’d gotten the night before.

We stopped at a red light along University Avenue and she started telling about a time when Dad was 15. He called home and told her some cock and bull story that she couldn’t recall. He said he needed a ride home. When she picked him up from the High School, he had a black eye. “He’d been in a fight next to the river” she said, “and he didn’t want anyone to know he’d lost. I didn’t want anyone to know he’d been in a fight. So I took him home, and put makeup on his eye. I did it each morning until it healed.”

She didn’t say anything for a while. Once we turned from Center Street to 3110 West, she said, “I’ve been covering up his mistakes for some time. Trying to believe his lies. Suppose I did it again last night. Maybe that’s why he thinks everyone around him is a fool.” We parked in the driveway and Grandma said, “I’m sorry I didn’t believe you…” She paused for a moment, her hands at ten and two, palms kneading the steering wheel. “You reminded me so much of your father,” she said.

Her statement hit hard and I wondered if I was going to have another attack of diarrhea. She confirmed what I already suspected. What I already feared. I thought about the lie I told her, and then the lies I told others. She didn’t tell me I was at a crossroads. Or remind me, once again, that if I keep lying, I’d share a future like Dad’s. I felt scared, but my stomach didn’t turn. It was a good scared, a hopeful scared. The kind of fear that brings awaking and change and hope.

Grandma looked in my eyes. And then she looked at my waist. “People are smarter than you think,” she said, “telling lies will catch up with you.” We sat in the car for moment, both of us thinking about Dad. “Go in and take a bath,” Grandma said. “I’ll wash your shorts.”