Indoor Plumbing

by Greg Downs


The summer Charlie turned twelve, he spent a month with his grandfather in central Kentucky. His mother told Charlie it was because of the heat, because their little apartment in Ann Arbor, Michigan wasn’t air-conditioned, but secretly she hoped a month there would help him understand why she left Kentucky in the first place. The last few months, Charlie had started asking her so many questions about her childhood on that farm, as if he were nostalgic for a life he had never had, a life that in her mind had been more irritating than romantic. Some evenings she drove him through the college campus just so he could see the black boys and white girls holding hands. “And there’s nothing wrong with that, is there, Charlie?” she asked. She wasn’t listening for an answer; she was gesturing, cutting the air with her right hand, talking to herself. The same gestures she made that August as she drove away from her father’s house, as Charlie and the old man stood on the porch waving goodbye to her.

Charlie’s grandfather rented out his farm now and lived off his social security and his rent checks in a small, blue house in the county seat. The old man, remembering his daughter’s disdain for crops and farm implements, ignored Charlie’s questions, answering the boy with jokes and riddles. “The best plow to have is your neighbor’s,” he’d say. “That way you don’t have to fix it when it breaks.” Instead of the horse rides and sweet corn he’d expected, Charlie got a summer of two-hand pinochle and bacon sandwiches and Cincinnati Reds games on the AM radio. It was a disappointment to the boy, and he got quieter by the day. The two barely spoke, though they spent every hour together, pulling weeds in the garden during the morning, playing cards and listening to the radio in the afternoon. When the Reds weren’t on, they listened to a country station that announced the hometown of each singer before playing his song. All the singers were from Kentucky, it seemed like, and Charlie asked his grandfather to drive him to some of those towns. Eddyville or Russellville or Salt Creek.

“Can’t take you to Eddyville,” his grandfather said. “Closed down last year when the last person left.” Knowing he was being teased, Charlie turned back to his cards, thumping his deuce down hard on the table like his grandfather did. Without knowing it, he had picked up many of his grandfather’s habits. He stroked the soft part of his belly after he ate. When he was thinking, he rubbed his neck with the back of his wrist.

Every Thursday they ate lunch at the Junction Café, where the owner wrote their order on a green pad and a black boy wearing a white apron filled their water glasses. The last time they went there, Charlie’s grandfather told him something surprising. After the boy poured their water, Charlie’s grandfather wiped the rim of his glass with a napkin, then took a drink.

“See water, make water,” his grandfather said, rubbing his big stomach.

Charlie didn’t have to pee but he followed his grandfather anyway. It was a small bathroom – one stall and one urinal – and Charlie’s grandfather went into the stall and started to pee. His pee made an enviable, throttling sound in the bowl. Charlie was standing before the urinal, but nothing was coming.

“You don’t really pee in that thing, do you?” His grandfather came out from the stall, his white boxer shorts showing behind his undone zipper. “Where you think that black boy out there goes pee?” Charlie didn’t answer. “He goes right here, you know. And, if you go there and he goes there, then your pee and his gets mixed up together in the piping. Black and white pee together don’t make gray pee, they make some kind of acid that turns the water to vinegar. And then that’s the water you drink. That’s why they used to have different bathrooms. And that’s why today you’ll see the black people at the urinal, and us folks behind the stall. To keep things working right for both sides.”

Charlie couldn’t tell if his grandfather was joking him or not. “I’ve seen people up in Michigan peeing in the urinal,” Charlie said. “White people.”

“Well, white people in Michigan will do any damn thing, won’t they?”

Charlie stayed at the urinal, intending to pee right then in front of his grandfather, but he couldn’t, not while he was being watched. When they walked back to their table, Charlie stared over at the black boy pouring water into glasses at another table. Charlie felt thick and itchy like he had to go to the bathroom. He rubbed his belly to distract himself. Later, after his grandfather paid the bill, Charlie walked back to the bathroom and peed proudly in the urinal. He didn’t tell his grandfather.

But when Charlie returned to Michigan in September, he gradually started using the stalls. One day he saw two boys fighting savagely in the locker room and he went into the stall and latched it and sat there a while. One day he spent an entire class period in the stall, just sitting and thinking. That fall his grandfather was sick and sounded weak over the telephone. Peeing in the stall became a way of remembering the old man, of pretending he had learned more than he actually had. Then it was just a habit.

It was never something he talked about, not until years later, when his wife asked him a question about his grandfather. He and his wife were eating enchiladas at a Mexican chain restaurant in South Bend, Indiana. Telling it pleased him; the brevity of his relationship with the old man made it sweeter in retrospect, and he knew his grandfather’s life would be surprising to his wife, who had grown up in a practical, Catholic home in Northbrook, Illinois. As he spoke, he dipped his cloth napkin in his water glass and scrubbed his fork with it. He realized that the story annoyed her, but he kept telling it anyway. Just because she was from the Midwest didn’t mean she had the right to feel superior to his grandfather.

“My brothers would drop dead before they’d pee in the stall,” she said. “Two of them had urinals installed in their home bathrooms just so they can hang loose. And you really wait in line for the stall, just to keep from using the urinal?”

“Not always.” He scratched his cheek. “There’s baseball games. There’s concerts. There’s times when it’s an emergency.”

She picked a tortilla chip off the plate, looked at it, then put it down. “You know that black people use the stalls too, don’t you?” He nodded. “And you know there’s only one pipe down there, right? That no matter what you do in the sink or the stall or the urinal, it all goes to the same place. The water and the pee and everything.”

“And the dirt under our feet is the same, but that doesn’t mean you want to live next door to them, does it?”

“That’s just safety and good sense. This is shit and piss and craziness.”

He didn’t like anything about this conversation, not the words she used, not the things he was saying. He chewed on the inside of his cheek, a small consolation; he looked at his hands. “I’ll stop,” he said. “We won’t ever have to talk about it again.”

“That wouldn’t stop you from thinking it. Stopping now wouldn’t even matter.”

But it did. He got up to go to the bathroom and he peed in the urinal even though he didn’t have to, even though she’d never know. “I did it,” he said when he came back. She said she didn’t want to hear about it, but she had relaxed. She ordered a margarita. He did, too. “My grandfather loved to listen to the Cincinnati Reds,” he said. “My grandfather loved bacon.”

“Everybody loves bacon,” she said, trying to reassure him.

For a while he thought that peeing in the urinal might help that other thing go away – that urge he had to urinate whenever he saw a black person – but it didn’t. Gradually, as he noticed people’s stares, he stopped rubbing his belly in public. Now he chewed the inside of cheek whenever he needed to distract himself, whenever he saw a black person, whenever he had to pee. He chewed his cheek until it was sore and stringy, until he could taste the blood underneath, until the pain and its little pleasure were the only things he could feel, until his grandfather – and whatever black people happened to be nearby – walked out of the room.