by Ainslie Hogarth
On the night Robert died I discovered that someone had left an enormous shit in the toilet. Monstrously large. Like some slimy, prehistoric specimen. An early cobra: cobrus stinkitus. Wrapped around itself at the ends, coiled with evenly spaced segments to fill the whole bowl or terrarium, or wherever one might find something as large and menacing and off-putting as what I’d found. I stared at it between my fingers which had quickly made their way over my face, a temporary buffer to protect some of my more delicate, sensitive, open bits, from what lay stinking and sweating and soaking in the bowl before me.
Then the phone rang and within a few minutes I would learn that Robert had been bisected in a basement two blocks away. Chopped in half with a pair of clownishly large hedge clippers by a deranged neighbour. The problem with deranged neighbours is that you never know when you’ve grossly offended one. And it turns out that that’s exactly what Robert had done.
Robert had never had a problem with The Deranged Neighbour before. Of course, we’d always called him The Deranged Neighbour, so we must have been given a clue at some point as to his unstable mental condition. I suppose we both just forgot about it; Robert had been living next to the man for so long now. So long, in fact, that The Deranged Neighbour had grown to learn where Robert kept a spare key, tucked under a lawn gnome in the garden. He knew that Robert sat quietly and watched television in his white chair most evenings. He knew that he could easily sneak up on Robert, what with his hearing being so weak these days and the volume on the television cranked so high. He gagged Robert with a wad of wool sock and some duct tape, then dragged him back to his garage where he kept the hedge clippers he usually employed to trim his magnolia tree.
Afterwards The Deranged Neighbour felt much better about the gross offense. He even forgave Robert’s top half. And then turned himself in to the police and told them all about it.
The offense in question is best represented by a pert, pink magnolia tree. The same pert, pink magnolia tree which stands in both Robert’s and The Deranged Neighbour’s yard. No one would ever suspect a magnolia tree of symbolizing a violent murder. Magnolias are benign little fellows, like lovely old ponies. Things to be taken care of and enjoyed, valuable inasmuch as you can love them.
You see, two months ago, Robert planted in his yard the same pert, pink magnolia tree that The Deranged Neighbour had planted the summer before. Neither Robert nor I realized it, but The Deranged Neighbour was quite offended by this act which Robert considered both a sincere form of flattery and a nice way to brighten up the neighbourhood. Their parallel trees. The best of friends, standing next to each other, interlocking their roots and branches like elbows on shoulders, leaning on one another for support. Robert had even told me that they reminded him of us. A picture of he and I on his front lawn. He said he loved to see their shadow at night, emblazoned by the street lights, splashed all over his bedroom wall.
The Deranged Neighbour had a very different interpretation of the trees. Utter disrespect is what he felt. A despicable display of inconsiderate rudeness, like graffiti all over his blue vinyl siding, Robert shamelessly holding the spray paint can. The shadow he saw on his own wall at night made him sick to his stomach with rage. After a few years people would never know who planted their sweet magnolia first, who rudely copied whom. All of the agonizing hours The Deranged Neighbour spent deciding whether or not to plant a graceful little magnolia in his yard, let its buxom pink flowers explode with bloom all over his lawn for him to pick up, graze his thumbs against, wet his fingers in the rot where it fell from the flower, would have been a waste. And that glorious moment, the moment he treasured above all of the other moments which made up his life, when he finally decided, yes, yes, yes, I’ll place that delicate little creature in my garden, a great weight lifted from his shoulders. A decision made, something was going to happen. The first thing he’d changed in twenty-five years. He gazed at his new tree all summer, his heart beating heavily, his eyes bloated with fat old man tears, the ones that flow thickly like paint, or water from rusty taps, mottled and heavy with underuse. He would wipe them away quick with a gardening-gloved hand. A swipe of dark dirt left along his cheekbone. Apparently he wore those same gloves when he chopped Robert in half.
And this enormous shit was birthed at exactly the same time that Robert was split open. But I didn’t know that yet, or any of those previous details at all really. I wouldn’t know anything until I spoke with Robert myself, which would happen soon enough.
And at this point, all I wanted to know was which one. Which disgusting, inconsiderate rube left that filth in the toilet? This shit, like a thick, muscular serpent waiting patiently in the toilet bowl, ready to strike at your eyes when you flick on the light and lean in for a peek.
Who left this shit?
My floor contained three small apartments: one bedroom, one kitchen, one little square of a room connecting the other rooms to a front door. We all shared a bathroom at the end of the hall: one toilet, one shower, two sinks. The landlord called us The Three Sixes. The tenants below us, The Three Fives, below them The Three Fours and so on to the basement, which the landlord occupied entirely.
6A: Anna Floss. A willowy woman with thin, white fingers and edgeless limbs. Every morning she quilted herself in shawls and scarves and made her way slowly down the steps to get a newspaper and a black coffee from the stand at the corner. She gripped the banister with both hands, one white knuckled along it and the other one steadying her wrist. She was very, very frail and her every movement wiggled just slightly. An involuntary dance that I used to watch my own mother perform on a nightly basis. The dance of too much to drink. Small movements seem to occur as the drunk loses balance, twitches, perhaps the body’s increasingly obvious attempts at achieving equilibrium, movements microscopic in the non-inebriated who can usually stand quite easily. I think that for Anna Floss, gin was only part of the problem. The other problem was that she hadn’t eaten a real meal in forty years, just enough to keep herself alive I guessed. I don’t think that she could be capable of producing such a monstrous crap. At least not yet. Perhaps after many years of extensive therapy, which she probably didn’t have time for anymore.
6B: Albert Magunty. Albert Magunty was from somewhere up North and he told me once that he used to wear a nylon mask to work. He said that at the end of the night, when he was finally allowed to pull it off, his face was all the wrinkled wet of oversaturated bath skin. He had long, depressed scars running down his face. Tiny valleys. Tracks along which blood and sweat could neatly follow. Because he bled a lot at work and sweat all the time, being as big and as fat as you can be without suffering from mobility problems. He had a large black moustache that hung hard and still like plastic action figure capes from the round nostrils of his heaped, leathery nose. His hands were always all over his face whether he was mashing an itch or rubbing sleep from his puffy eyes or stroking his burnt toast chin. I asked him once where he got all of his scars and he told me that his father was a butcher. I decided to leave the subject alone after that. Albert Magunty. Certainly a character capable of labouring through a shit like the one that had assaulted my eyes. I could see his burly asshole conditioning a specimen such as the one that would eventually occupy a fishbowl in my bedroom. Albert Magunty. My prime suspect.
6C: Adele Fitler. Me. And there are two unfortunate things about my name. Firstly, the obvious: that when you say it out loud it sounds exactly like Adolf Hitler. The second unfortunate thing about the name is that I’m a man. And Adele happens to be a girl’s name. Adele Fitler was my mother’s name and the name of her mother before that and her mother before that and her mother before that. Naming a boy Adele Fitler brought a new dynamic to the hell of the name. My mother wanted a daughter and my father ran away before he could talk any sense into her. Also, he likely didn’t care what she called me. He had run away from the both of us at the exact same time, because I was still just a little parasite in a plush, pink terrarium.
Yes, I admit, I took the pooh from the toilet. I fetched a plastic bag from my room and grabbed it up from the cold water which had preserved it for a then unknowable amount of time. At first I had no intention of doing such a thing. I walked into the bathroom and felt the same kind of repulsion that you or any other reasonable person would feel upon discovering another person’s waste hiding in the bowl. I was furious, glared in the direction of the other Sixes under wads of furrowed, angry brow. So rotten. So disrespectful. I had a mind to call the landlord, have him type up an authoritative looking document on his computer. A sign that said, “Please FLUSH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” with that many exclamation points. I was certainly that many exclamation points mad. I left the evidence where it was and returned to my room to get my camera. Someone had to capture the crime on film, otherwise there might not have ever been a crime at all.
When I entered my apartment the phone had already been ringing. I picked it up expecting Robert because Robert was my best and only friend. Only it wasn’t Robert, it was Robert’s brother, his belly all full of the details of Robert’s murder, which he had partially digested then regurgitated for me over the phone.
A couple of hours ago.
Confession to the police.
Body found in two.
Top and bottom crammed into washing machine and dryer respectively.
I’m so sorry, Adele.
I hung up the phone and looked towards the bathroom. In my mind there was no possible chance that these two events – Robert’s brutal death and the enormous, serpentine shit in the toilet – were unrelated. How could they be?
Now this is where things get a little odd. And I’ll admit that. Like I said, when I first saw the excrement I was as repulsed as anyone else would be. Probably even more so. I was as repulsed as your grandmother would be, to find something so heinous lurking in the place where I brushed my teeth and got naked and cleaned myself. Though taking a shit and cleaning oneself are both private rituals, there should really be separate places to do them. One day when I move into a big house I’ll have a separate room for each of my private rituals, specially designed somehow to perfectly accommodate them. But that will probably never happen because I’m an old man now and it’s very likely I’ll die here, on the sixth floor with the other Sixes.
Anyway, I fetched a plastic bag and scooped the shit out of the toilet gingerly, careful not to break it or bruise it or leave an impression of my hands in it. Then I put it in a fishbowl with a little bit of its own water and waited for it to give me a sign.
The smell was unbearable. Truly. As soon as I could prove that Mr. Magunty had laid this egg I would give him a pamphlet on colon health. I didn’t want either of the lonely Sixes to die before me. I could only bear to be the first. I found a box of painter’s masks beneath the sink, put one on, and sprayed it see-through with a deodorizing spray. At the time I had no idea what those fumes could do to the minds of lonely people. I’ve since been told.
A few nights passed. I thought about Robert and the magnolia tree that he died for. I dreamed of being sucked into the pink folds of its blossoms, devoured by a world that was loud with beauty and smelly and hot and wet and pink to brown and too ripe. I tried to claw my way out but couldn’t. I was being sucked down, towards the nucleus, the place from which all of the petals exploded and expanded and dripped rotted to the ground. I woke up in the middle of the night from this dream and looked over at the fishbowl. There was something new inside. A little note, sticking out from the turd. I walked over, stuck my hand in the fishbowl and retrieved it.
Hello Adele. It’s me, Robert.
Then I think I fainted because when I woke up, it was morning and I was lying on the floor with my mouth wide open beneath my painter’s mask. I still had the partially stained note in my hand. I read it again:
Hello Adele. It’s me, Robert.
I looked up, it seemed as though the turd had excreted yet another note while I’d slept.
Adele, you can hear me? Oh thank god. Am I alive? Oh Adele it’s good to see your beautiful face my friend. I’m not sure where I am. I can’t move. No one could hear me. Am I in the hospital?
I burst out laughing. Had I gone insane? Is that what was happening here? I sniffed the new note and it reeked. That smell was real, no question about it. My brain couldn’t possibly have manufactured an odour such as that. Talking to a shit in a fishbowl. This was going to happen. I laughed more. I couldn’t stop. I laughed and I laughed until my laughter turned into tears and I could barely breath I was crying so hard. I placed both hands on either side of the fishbowl and looked at Robert. My reflection manipulated by distortions of cheap glass.
“H-hello, Robert.” I couldn’t believe it. A fresh peal of laughter, a loud sniff, I was speaking to my friend the pile of shit. Robert, who had recently been worked out of Mr. Magunty’s asshole, with great effort I’m sure, judging by the length and particularly the width of him. The smell, my god. I took a second to fill my painter’s mask with more deodorizing spray. It made me feel nice and lightheaded and ready to take on the task of conversing with my old friend, the enormous turd. Like drinking a martini in a bar with a pal.
“Hello, Robert. I don’t know what to tell you, friend. You’re very ill I think. Something strange has happened. You’ve been murdered and now it seems you’ve become something else all together. You were murdered, Robert, killed by a psychotic over a magnolia tree, do you understand? I thought I had lost you forever.”
Another note forced its way out:
And now I’m back?
“It seems that way.”
For the next hour I spoke to Robert about what he remembered from the night of the murder, a mountain range of shit smeared notes beginning to fill my bedroom. I spoke to Robert about his magnolia and his brother and the thought of filling the long hours without him. Periodically I would have to spray more deodorizer in the room and into my mask. Now I had Robert with me forever. I could keep him here and speak to him and wouldn’t have to live life without him. I began to get hungry so I brought Robert to the kitchen where I could heat up a can of baked beans on the stove.
Robert squirted up a note and before I reached for it I thought for the first time about the sanitary concerns of acquiring such a roommate. Of course I would accommodate him, but it would take some getting used to. I plucked the note and read it:
Adele, you must tell me now. What is wrong with me, what have I become? I know I’m not in hospital. I see that much. Tell me.
I turned my back to him and shoved a thumb and four fingers into my eye sockets, pinching back tears. No, no, no this will never do. A few moments passed while I squeezed my face tighter and tighter.
“Are you happy right now, Robert?” I suddenly asked, spinning towards him on the balls of my feet, refreshed from a good, painful pinch.
A note popped out quickly:
What am I Adele.
“Are you comfortable?”
Said the note:
I won’t speak to you until you tell me what I am.
And he didn’t. I made my beans, I tried to reason with him. If he was happy and comfortable, who cares what he was? Why couldn’t he be happy with this new existence? I was careful not to divulge exactly what that existence was however. No response. As long as we were together, what difference did it make? I wouldn’t care if we were two mice in a wall, two boils on a chin. Or two soft, pink magnolia petals doomed to overripe and fall heavy to the ground. I pleaded through mouthfuls of sticky brown beans, no response. I sat and stared at him, cried and begged, shook the fishbowl, no response, no response, no response. I slept and woke to no note in the morning for three nights. Finally I cracked. Living with a turd in a fishbowl that I knew was Robert but who wasn’t speaking to me was worse than living without Robert at all.
“This is all very odd to me too, Robert, do you understand? I didn’t plan this or conjure it, it just fell into my lap. Or, not lap really. Into my toilet. Right now I’m talking to a turd, Robert. You’ve become a turd. I discovered you in my toilet the day that you died and you were the most impressive thing I’d ever seen. Well, not at first, but as soon as I knew what you were. You’re the mightiest turd, Robert. Mighter as a turd than as a man, this I promise you. The king of turds, do you realize that? I staggered when I first saw you, truly I did. You might even be proud of yourself if you saw because I think as far as turds go, you’re the most striking turd I’ve ever laid eyes on. And I used to clean up at that stadium, Robert, you remember that. Mightier and more handsome than any I’ve seen, that’s the truth.”
No response. No movement. No acknowledgement on his part that he had heard anything I’d said. Then suddenly, he began to quiver and stir and a little note forced its way out once again. The first in three days:
Grab a mirror Adele, I want to see myself.
“Why, Robert? Why do you have to see yourself? What difference does it make?”
No response. He knew how to press the button. I couldn’t have him quiet.
So I walked to my nightstand, pulled a small hand mirror out of the drawer and returned to the dresser that Robert was on top of. I placed a doily beneath him to make him look a bit neater before I held the mirror up to what might have been his face. It’s odd, the turd began to take on the qualities of a man’s face, or at least, I’d begun to force the qualities onto it. Two little seeds became eyes and a poorly chewed section of what might be creamed corn bubbled out for a nose. He seemed to speak or excrete notes that is, between segments, so I suppose that those segments could be his mouths. Nothing wrong with a man having a few mouths is there?
A little quiver and another note shot out, this time a bit faster.
“You seem to be getting the hang of this,” I said to him encouragingly. I plucked the note out and read it.
Flush me Adele. I can’t live like this. Look at me. I’m a turd in a fishbowl. This isn’t a life, heavens no.
A frown pulled at my face. I couldn’t help it. I could understand of course what he was saying, but how could I possibly flush my dearest friend? How could I lose him again?
“Robert,” I said, “how could I? You’re asking me to kill you, don’t you realize that? You’re asking me to end your life. I’ll be so lonesome without you, Robert. I’ll be so very alone.”
A tiny struggle, another note.
Please Adele. If I was ever any friend to you at all, you’ll flush me.
I sucked in another breath of deodorizer and began to cry. And I sat there and I cried until Anna Floss tapped gently on my door and whispered through a crack, her tiny voice tickling my ear, asking me if I was okay.
“Yes!” I replied loudly. “Leave me alone, Anna!”
And once I knew she was gone I made my way to the bathroom and performed a very private ritual with my very dearest friend Robert.
AINSLIE HOGARTH is a very recent graduate from an MA in Creative Writing program at the University of Auckland, where she completed the first draft of her first novel. She enjoys day old macaroni and writing very short biographies about herself.