Sally Rae and I own and operate the best restaurant in Heartbreak, Texas. I can say this without fear of contradiction or fear of bragging. That’s because we own the ONLY restaurant in our idyllic little wide-spot-in-the-road, backwoods town, located some 50 or 500 miles west of Houston’s degenerate sushi bars. Strangers — often lost — come through and remark, “It’s so peaceful here.” This automatically marks them as tourists, or worse. Like any place that has humans, we know that under that veneer of Southern politeness there is lot simmering, just waiting to boil.
Janey and Johnny continued to live with us, some 14 months after the birth of The Golden Boy, Li’l’ Freddy. My sweet daughter Janey was a grown woman, with all the good and bad that sudden motherhood had loaded onto her.
Johnny was a computer geek. He made his living from a tiny niche under the staircase. He tried to explain to us what he did. I think Li’l’ Billy understood him; I just nodded wisely and pretended to understand.
He was a quiet sort of guy. He didn’t take up much room, he contributed to the household finances, and he had even hinted around about another baby. What wasn’t there to like?
Janey helped Sally Rae out during peak times in our restaurant, downstairs. Since I am getting up in years, I get to babysit Li’l’ Freddy mornings and afternoons. We enjoyed our naps together, he jabbered at me, and I jabbered right back. I expect his first words any day now.
Since Heartbreak has lots of old-fashioned brick buildings, I was even able to secure a practice area for Li’l’ Billy and his band, Blunt Force Trauma. It was on the edge of town, so only the rats in the basement suffered any real discomfort from the arrangement.
For a time, life seemed to hit an equilibrium.
Of course, even California looks pretty stable to some, but everyone knows that The Big One is coming someday.
It wasn’t all at once, but my sweet Janey gradually started to unravel.
At breakfast: “Li’l’ Billy’s room is soooo rank! I thought there was a dead possum in there, but when he walks up behind me, I smell him! Boys!”
I tried to calm her. “Yes, Little Darlin’, he does smell a bit. That’s just how young men get at a certain point. Now, please don’t go hurting his feelings. Boys that age are more fragile than they look.”
At lunch: “Our upstairs toilet is overflowing. Sometimes it works, but today, it’s just disgusting!”
“I’ll dump some more chemicals down it, whenever Li’l’ Freddy takes his nap.”
At dinner: “I’m going to go crazy! All I do around here is work and change diapers.”
I wisely kept silent. Janey’s lot in life was not much different than most people. Sure, it was work and could be tedious; but I was sure as I could be that pointing this out would be a bad move.
I was not without some understanding for my suddenly grown-up girl. Janey was bright, college-educated, and she had a young person’s yearning for something better, a wish to leave her mark somewhere, an outlet for her creativity.
Of course, the last time she got to feeling a bit creative, we got Li’l’ Freddy. Motherhood is a major load, even for the born nurturers.
The one time of the week when Janey seemed happiest was Wednesdays. That was when she and Tanika took an afternoon in Culver City and got manicures and pedicures. When she arrived back home, she spent another hour or so perfecting the manicurist’s results, using one blue Q-Tip after another. I personally don’t get it, but I’m just a man.
Despite my best efforts with a toilet plunger and two bottles of Drain Cure, the upstairs toilet kept on overflowing. Over the next few days I snaked it, I used the plunger, I even played Beethoven to it.
It flatly did not help matters that the next time it overflowed, it was on Janey’s new pedicure.
What followed was like a hurricane when one expected calm. Janey cried, Janey screamed. Janey threw a roll of toilet paper and hit Johnny squarely in the forehead.
Johnny retreated to the backyard, where I was sitting beneath the old oak tree, sipping a small glass of whiskey, purely medicinal.
“Did you hear all that, Dave?”
“I sure did,” I said. “I even saw it coming. Would you like a drop of this? I thought ahead and brought a spare glass.”
“Is motherhood always this tough on women?” he asked.
“No,” I replied, “but I guess you meant the human species. In which case I have to say ‘yes.’ Right now, Janey is sort of mourning a loss. It’s called ‘opportunity cost.’ She went off to college with all sorts of ideas and dreams. Mothers are tethered to their children in a way most men aren’t.”
“What should I do?” he asked.
“First, finish your drink. Then go back in kiss her, play with Li’l’ Freddy until he laughs out loud, and keep it up until she wants to play with him, too.”
“Will that actually work?” he asked.
“Son, ain’t nothing always works.”
Days passed. The bitter coldness of February had us all feeling a bit cooped up. Li’l’ Billy’s band improved. Standing outside his “studio” I actually recognized one of the tunes they were playing, if “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was played by a death metal band. Sally Rae added a new item to the menu, a sure sign that she was feeling happy. I didn’t begrudge her a moment of happiness but I could not get over the impression that she was hiding in her kitchen.
The one thing that didn’t improve was the toilet tribulation. Like the ancient Nile, it overflowed its banks with predictable regularity. Also, Janey complained of its trying ways with predictable regularity.
Finally, we had all had enough of dashing downstairs to the restaurant’s facilities.
It all came to a head on a bitter, cold February night. Janey was fuming, ready to throw a fit.
“Johnny,” I said, more than a little desperate, “I am going to dismount this toilet. Now, I’m too old and broken down to lift it, so I want you to carry it out to the backyard. I am going to disassemble it, if necessary, but none of us can take this much longer.”
Johnny proved his worth with the, uh, johnny. It was an armload; indeed, it was filled to the brim with the Indeterminate Principle.
Once we were in the backyard, I triple-bagged my hands with plastic bags and emptied it out. There was nothing to see, except the expected. Sally Rae held Li’l’ Freddy. Li’l’ Billy held his nose. Janey held the flashlight and frequently reminded us how important a fix this was going to be.
Toilets and I have a long, troubled history. I’ve fought them on several occasions; sometimes I won, other times, not so much. This time I felt the stakes were especially high.
At first, there was nothing. Then I rolled the whole thing over, with the bottom facing upward.
There, framed in the flashlight, were three plastic Q-Tips. They formed an equilateral triangle, one of the strongest shapes found it nature.
As one, we all looked up at Janey.
“Well, the manicurist told me I could flush them!” she exclaimed.
Then she burst into tears and ran back into the house.
I knew for certain that the next 15 minutes were going to be (yet another) test of my fatherhood. Whatever I said on return would be remembered forever.
I looked at Johnny. “Do you think you can remount this toilet?” I asked.
“I think so. I watched closely when you took it loose,” he said.
“Well, you already know where I keep my snakebite medicine. Take a few minutes before you come in.”
To Sally Rae and Li’l’ Billy I said, “Give me a little bit of time with Janey.”
First, I washed my hands.
Back inside I could see Janey’s shoulders shaking. The only thing worse than making a fool of oneself was doing it in front of one’s family.
I walked over and sat down beside Janey. She suddenly looked about 14 again. I hugged her and said quietly, “I can be really mean about this ’cause I never made a mistake before.”
She turned and hugged me. I felt her hot tears on my cheek.
“I was going to go to Paris with Johnny,” she wailed between sobs. “He would do his computer work there and I would write my novel. Instead, I’m just another ‘too soon mother’ that smells like spoiled milk; I have to live with my parents. I wanted to be something and all I do is complain and ruin toilets. I am such a failure.”
I held her closer.
“Whoever told you that making a human life was a failure?” I asked. “If you want to write that novel bad enough, you will. Meanwhile, I think you are that same beautiful daughter I’ve loved, and loved passionately, from the moment I first saw you.”
Bit by bit, her mood lifted.
Just then, Li’l’ Freddy toddled in. He solemnly pointed toward the bathroom and said, “Poo-poo paw-paw?”
My grandson said his first words! ￼
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