Wednesday, April 23, 2008

My Litter Box Story

Is this story what it appears to be, a rambling reminiscence of a particular day? Is it a piece of writing inspired by an actual day but then pleasantly embellished? Is it carefully crafted and completely fictional?

One Degree Of Richard Brautigan

Some years after Andy Warhol survived being shot by a young woman he worked with, he was asked if the shooting caused him to make any big changes to the way he lived. Warhol said the biggest change happened against his will and caused him quite a bit of trouble. He said that since the shooting whenever he finds himself talking to a woman with wild eyes he starts feeling nervous, suspicious, fearful. It’s a big problem for him, Warhol said, because women with wild eyes are the only women he enjoys talking to.

I’ve never been shot, but more than once I’ve had odd but seemingly innocuous—possibly even humorous—situations unexpectedly click (like a hammer falling against a cartridge) and explode around me (like gunpowder igniting) with an end result that left me feeling shell-shocked and something very much like wounded.

I’ve never given up on the wild eyed girls, though.

One of the first such situations—but by no means the first—happened in that same era when I met Del Close, but just before I moved into my north side apartment.

I took my friend Joanne from the McKinley Park tennis club to one of the parties my show biz wannabe friends threw every weekend.

This Friday it was at Martha’s house. [Martha In The Overall Scheme Of Things, Martha And The Alchemy Of Doors, Martha And The End Of The World Working, Dead Monkeys. Swimming Pools. Movie Stars.]

Martha lived with her parents in the entire first floor of a big, three-story old house up near Lincoln Park. Her parents were out of town for the weekend and had specifically told her no parties, but she had been planning the party since the previous weekend.

By typical party standards, the place was huge. There was a living room in front, a dining room, a big kitchen, a utility room, laundry room, a few bedrooms, a back porch and a back yard. Oddly, there was only one bathroom.

That damn one bathroom would be the downfall of my evening.

Joanne and I arrived a little early and helped set up everything, then we left and drove over to the Century shopping mall and walked around for a while. When we got back to Martha’s house the front doors were open and groups of people were already forming in the living room, the dining room and the back yard.

It seemed like the start of a cool night.

Now, I’d known Joanne for about three or four years, but we’d always gone out either together or as a threesome with our friend Mike. I knew she didn’t hang out with the girls her own age at the tennis club, but she’d always gotten along well with the adults in the club. The show biz wannabe parties were always like mini science fiction conventions—lots of people from just about every age group imaginable, but mostly young adults. If I remember right, Joanne and I were both twenty—she was on her first summer break from college and I had dropped out a few months before.

But Joanne couldn’t find anyone that she enjoyed talking to. We started the party together and whenever one of us drifted away for a soda or snack we always ended up drifting back together again. Every time I got into a conversation with someone else, from the corner of my eye I’d see Joanne nodding and ending a conversation with somebody and I’d drift back to her so she wouldn’t be standing alone.

It wasn’t a bad night because I liked Joanne a lot and I’m happy no matter who I’m talking to so long as I’m talking to someone. So I was very happy spending the party talking to Joanne.

At some point—I don’t remember exactly why—Joanne and I drifted apart for a few minutes and I sort of made the rounds of the house checking up on everything and everybody. When Joanne and I got back together she told me she really needed to use the bathroom.

“Oops,” I said. “You might have to wait a bit. A guy named Victor and a girl named Carly just went in there.”

“No, you don’t understand,” Joanne said. “I really need to use a bathroom. Now. What the hell are two people doing in the bathroom?”

I made a face and motioned with my head for us to move a little away from the dining room. “Some guy and girl are in the back bedroom,” I said. “Victor and Carly are in the bathroom in the tub.”

Joanne’s eyes went wide. “They’re taking a bath?!”

“No,” I said. “They’re in the bathtub doing the same thing the other guy and girl are doing in the bedroom. You know . . .”

Joanne frowned and shook her head. “Oh my God,” she said. “I can’t believe these people. Are these people retards? I need to use the bathroom! Is there another bathroom in the laundry room?”

Joanne walked past me and into the utility room to check the laundry room.

I followed her. “There’s just the one bathroom,” I said. I checked my watch. “I don’t imagine it will be more than, I don’t know, what, fifteen minutes?”

Joanne walked right up to me and for an instant I got the wild impression she was going to kiss me. Or punch me. She put her face up to mine and said, again, “I need to use a bathroom. Right now.”

I tried to think if there was a convenience store nearby. Or how fast we could drive back to the Century shopping mall. But then I didn’t remember offhand where the public restrooms were in the shopping mall . . .

Then, as I thought all that, my eyes were wandering around the laundry room and I got an idea.

“What do you have to do?” I asked Joanne.

“What?!” she asked.

“You know,” I said. “Number one or number two?”

“What difference does it make?” Joanne asked. “I’m not a guy. I’m not going to go in the alley against the garage.”

I took Joanne by the arm and walked her through the utility room and into the doorway of the laundry room.

“I know this is going to sound crazy,” I said. “But all these doors lock and I can stand outside and—”

“I am not going to go in the sink!” Joanne said.

“No,” I said. “No. Look. There’s a litter box and—”

“I am not going to go in a litter box!” Joanne said.

“No, look, there’s the litter box. There’s a fresh bag of litter. There’s a big garbage can. We can change it right away. Nobody will ever know. The litter is absorbent. That’s what it’s supposed to be used for. Look, there are paper towels and—”

Joanne held up a hand. She was frowning and staring at her feet. She looked around and her eyes were very narrow and her face was very red, either with anger or embarrassment or some combination of the two.

Without looking at me Joanne locked the back door of the utility room. I started to lock the front door but Joanne pointed to the kitchen. “You go out there,” she said.

“But you’ll be in the laundry room,” I said. “With the utility room locked nobody in the kitchen will know what’s going on.”

“I want you out of the utility room, too,” Joanne said. “I don’t want you, you know, hearing anything. And I don’t want anyone out there thinking the two of us are in here together like those people in the damn bathroom.”

I started to say something, but changed my mind. “Okay,” I said. “Whatever is best for you.”

So I went into the kitchen and closed the utility room door behind me. I heard Joanne lock it.

The kitchen was empty and I prayed nobody from the yard would start banging on the utility room back door. They could always get into the house through the porch and then come around to the kitchen if they wanted snacks or drinks.

I was mentally working out other contingencies when Martha came into the kitchen. She picked up a stack of paper plates.

It occurred to me that if I wanted to distract people from the utility room door then I shouldn’t stand in front of it because that just called attention to it. Unfortunately Martha was a smart and suspicious young lady and thought the same thing. She looked at me. She asked me, “What are you doing?”

I had worked out an answer to that. I’m not very good at lying so I had prepared a half lie. “My date’s in there,” I said. “She’s fixing her clothes. Something came undone and she’s re-doing it.”

I think, normally, Martha would have seen through me but she was so happy being the real hostess of a party that she just accepted what I’d said at face value. “That happens to everybody,” she said. “Let me know if you need pins or anything.”

I smiled and nodded and Martha left with the paper plates.

I heard the door unlock behind me.

“Okay,” Joanne said. “Now take me home.”

“Do you need me to dump the litter?” I asked.

“No, I did that already. Just drive me home. Now.”

“It’s only about nine o’clock,” I said.

“Listen,” Joanne said, putting her face right in mine again, “I’ve had enough of this party. I want to go home. Now. I want to forget this evening ever happened.”

“Okay,” I said.

We left, saying goodbye just to the people we happened to pass on the way out.

We didn’t talk much on the way home. Mostly Joanne stared out the passenger window.

I’m pretty good at rambling about random topics and that’s pretty much what the conversation was. Me rambling about random things.

“Listen,” Joanne said, interrupting whatever I was prattling on about as we headed south on I-55, “I don’t ever want to talk about this again, okay? What happened tonight, I mean. And I don’t ever want you to tell anyone about this, okay? Not even Mike. Especially Mike, okay?”

“I won’t tell anyone,” I said.

“Tell me you won’t even tell Mike,” Joanne said.

“I won’t even tell Mike,” I said.

Joanne looked at me. “Okay,” she said. Then she looked back out the passenger window and I went back to prattling about whatever came to me.

When we got to Joanne’s house, I parked in front.

“You don’t have to walk me to the door,” Joanne said.

“I always do,” I said.

Joanne sighed and sat back, letting me get out and hurry around and open the passenger side door.

I walked her up the front steps and on to her porch.

“Umm, I know this sounds crazy,” I said, “but, umm, a goodnight kiss?”

Joanne stared at me. In the darkness I couldn’t make out her expression. “No,” she said.

Then all by itself my brain sort of flipped a switch or made a connection or did something unconsciously or whatever because I didn’t think through at all what happened next. Even if I had thought it through I still would have done what I did. And I still would have been totally unprepared for the result.

I said, “Joanne, are you sure you don’t want to kiss me goodnight?”

Joanne said, “I’m sure.” She started to take out her keys to unlock the front door.

“Joanne?” I said.

She exhaled, exasperated. “What?!”

I pointed at her. I said, “You peed in a litter box.”

Even in the dark I could see her eyes go wide. “Shut up!” she yelled.

It is amazing how loud a yell sounds around ten o’clock at night in a quiet south side neighborhood.

Then Joanne yelled, again, “Shut up!” and she charged across the porch and kicked me in the ankle. “Shut up!” she said again, kicking my ankle again. And again. “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” And she kicked me again and again and again like some crazy baseball manager attacking a home plate umpire.

She was wearing tennis shoes so it didn’t hurt very much but I’d never really been yelled at by a girl before and I’d never been hit by a girl before and the combination made me kind of dazed. Not just kind of dazed. Getting screamed at and kicked made me actually dazed.

I put my hands on her shoulders and tried to lean my right leg back and away, out of reach of her kicks.

Then the porch light came on and the front door opened up.

Joanne’s mother stood in the doorway. “Joanne? What’s going on out here? Are you okay?”

Joanne spun to her mother and instantly Joanne’s voice sounded perfectly level, perfectly under control, perfectly normal. “I’m okay, Mom. Everything’s fine. Mark and I are just talking.” Joanne turned back to me. With the porch light on I could see her expression clearly. Her eyes got narrow. Like slits. Looking at me but speaking to her mother, Joanne said, “Mark just told me a joke.”

Joanne’s mother stared at us, then turned and went inside. But she left the front door open.

Joanne continued to stare at me. She glanced over her shoulder, I’m guessing to make sure her mother had gone back inside, then looked back at me. I think her eyes got even more narrow. If her eyes had been magic lasers she would have sliced off the top of my head real clean. Then she hauled back and kicked me square in the shin on my left leg. Even from a sneaker that really hurt.

Joanne turned and walked to the doorway. With her back to me, she said, “Good night, Mark.” She went inside and closed the door. I heard the lock click.

I started back to my car. The porch light went off even before I got to the steps.

I hobbled down the steps (like the walking wounded) through the darkness (like gathering unconsciousness) back to my car and drove my shell-shocked self home.

Andy Warhol was shot when he was about to turn forty. I’ll turn forty-eight later this year. Maybe I’ve already lived through the most dangerous years.

Not that it would make any difference.

I am not giving up the wild eyed girls.

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