Illustration by Crystal Barbre
WHEN THEY FLOAT TO THE TOP
by Amanda Kimmerly
It was day 35 of “35 Days of Potty Training,” and all Finke had learned so far was to poop on a towel and throw it out the doggy door. “And tomorrow, class, we learn to pee in a cup,” Susan said to herself, exhausted already at 8 a.m. She already tried every method suggested in the parenting books-- potty chairs, candy incentives, children’s books with pictures of little girls and boys sitting on the pot, freakishly happy. She even tried praying. But, Finke, under absolutely no circumstances, would use the toilet.
Issue #3 soundtrack: Careful "Fox and His Friends"
He peed outside, in the backyard, with the family Mastif, Master P. There was a picture hanging on the refrigerator of the two popping a squat together in the Azalea garden. How cute, Susan’s friends would say, half-honest, half-disgusted. If Rufus was around, he’d ask if they wanted a copy for their refrigerator, or better yet, one inscribed with “Merry Christmas from the Mooney’s.”
“There’s always a positive side to even the worst situations,” Rufus said. This was his middle school counselor side speaking. “At least he doesn’t pee on you.” This was just plain Rufus.
He smiled wide, and backed away as to not get punched in the arm. Even though his wife was only a hundred pounds, she had something far more superior than strength—- bony knuckles.
Susan just looked at him, annoyed.
“You’re doing great, hon.” Rufus said, “See you after work.”
He leaned in to kiss her on the mouth, but she only offered a cheek—- “Ah, the black belt of a woman’s fighting strategy,” Rufus said, and walked out the front door.
Susan was still slightly bitter for having to quit her job as the editor for the women’s section of the newspaper. Someone had to take care of Finke. He was the only three-year-old to ever get kicked out of Tater’s Schools for Tots, the sole daycare for nearly forty miles. The following Sunday at church, all the other moms asked, so sincerely, what happened, even though their children had already spilled the news or at least the headline: Finke Pees on Teeter Totter During Recess. With the sub-line reading: And, again, on a wall, at nap time. Thank God, the moms would say to Susan minutes before service, for their precious Cindy and perfect Trent, who breezed through potty-training like it was a natural-born gift, a talent so rare, it should be an Olympic event. Lately, Susan and Rufus have been seen slipping in the church doors at exactly 8 a.m., when everyone’s already seated. “Poor Sue,” they say when she wasn’t around.
Finke headed toward the aquarium, past Susan. They had two goldfish, Goldilocks and Goldie Hawn, and one rainbow fish, Boy George, all named by Rufus. Finke watched them every morning for at least ten minutes, paying most attention to Boy George. But, this morning, Boy George was floating upside down at the top of the tank, his colors stripped of their usual brilliance.
“Oh, no!” Susan cried. She knew Finke would not understand why Boy George wasn’t swimming. “He’s dead,” Susan said. “When they float to the top, it means they’re dead.” Finke’s brown eyes widened. He stuck his bottom lip out, then breathed in heavy, collecting himself. He pressed his face to the tank and kissed it.
“We’ve got to flush him,” Susan said, putting her hand on Finke’s shoulder. Earlier that week, when she tried to show him the magic of pressing a handle and making everything disappear, he stuck his fingers in his ears and cried. Granted, their toilet is as obnoxious as vacuuming in the middle of the night. Sometimes Susan even felt reluctant to flush, afraid to disturb the natural peace and quiet.
Susan scooped the fish out and carried him toward the bathroom. Finke followed, but stopped in front of the door. “You don’t want to watch?” She waited a minute before dropping Boy George into the toilet. As she reached for the handle, Finke ran to the living room.
Susan wished Finke would just talk to her. A sentence, even, “Mommy, I’m afraid of the Toilet Monster,” so she’d understand. But he couldn’t even say “I love you,” or “Daddy, Master P is a ridiculous name for a dog,” like Susan hoped.
Finke had not spoken one word ever since he was born.
The parenting articles Susan read obsessively said not to worry, some kids learn slower than others. Not like headlines “Brain Overgrowth Linked to Autism” or “Mental Disorder in Parents Linked to Silent Children” would make any parent worry. Albert Einstein, Julia Robinson, Edward Teller, they were all late-talkers, too, the articles said, and look how they turned out.
All geniuses, all social disasters.
Susan would not have this for her son. She knew, just from being the shortest girl in class, how vicious children could be. By the fifth grade, no one but her teachers called her Susan. She was officially renamed Arm Rest.
She walked into the living room and sat down on the couch, about to flip open the newspaper to the women’s section. Her 57-year-old boss took it over since she left. It was fine, except, he only included articles about baking, sewing, or the occasional women’s softball tournament. She had hoped for his retirement five years ago.
Before she even scanned the first page, she noticed Finke squeezing his legs together in front of the fish tank. He was watching Goldilocks and Goldie Hawn swim. Even though fish naturally only have one bug-eyed expression, they seemed unscathed by Boy George’s absence. The only instance Finke, at this time in his life, could compare it to was Susan’s mother dying, and that changed everyone. For six months, she only cooked casseroles listed in her mother’s cookbook, sometimes the same ones in a row. After a week of green bean casserole, Rufus convinced her to see a counselor, one more professional than himself.
“You have to potty, honey?” Susan said to Finke.
Finke grabbed his wee-wee, as the children’s books called them, with both hands and waddled toward the doggie door.
“Oh, no, you don’t!” Susan leaped from her seat like a frog and picked Finke up by the armpits.
“This is stopping today, little boy.”
They reached the bathroom. Finke’s eyes got bigger, and in them gleamed the clear reflection of a shiny ceramic vortex. His body dangled over the hole. “Pee here, Finke, come on, you can do it,” his mom said, but Finke twisted his legs together like electrical wires. Susan tried to hold him with one arm and untangle him with her free one. He started to shake ferociously, and she could not control him. “God damn it!” she shouted. Finke rammed his foot into his mother’s stomach. She fell down, still holding him. He was crying, but Susan was weeping. “Get out of here,” she yelled. “Now!” Finke was so scared, he peed.
For the next three hours, Susan laid on her bed, feeling sick. Rufus was on his way home, for lunch. He was dying to tell her about a fight he witnessed between a hefty, muscular girl and a tiny, frail-looking girl. The frail girl head-butted the large girl right in the ovaries, a situation Susan would surely appreciate.
When he opened the door, he noticed all the lights beaming, but nobody was in the living room, the dining room, the kitchen. “Honey?” he called. No one answered. He walked past the fish tank, noticing only two. “Aw, Boy George,” he said to the tank. “What a drag.” Leave it to Rufus to negate all sentiment from a situation with one quick, inappropriate line.
Finke was in his room, playing with his toy trains. Rufus heard the crash of plastic. “Hey there, little buddy.” The books say to keep talking as much as possible, even if the child never responds. He knows this because Susan told him. “Looks like you had an accident,” he said, referring to the pee stain on Finke’s khaki pants.
Rufus took out a pair of blue and orange flowered swimming shorts from Finke’s bottom drawer. “Waterproof.”
He helped change Finke, and then headed toward his bedroom. The door was closed. “You in there?” He opened the door and saw Susan lying on her side, hugging a green body pillow. The last time she did this was the day her sister called to say their mother died.
Rufus tapped the pillow with his finger, “Excuse me, sir, that’s my wife you’re cuddling with.”
Susan smiled a little. Rufus laid down, facing her. “Another tough day training the warrior?”
Susan sighed. “Finke kicked me.”
“I bet it’s nothing compared to the fight I saw today!”
She let go of the pillow, and reached for a white plastic object on the night stand. It had been sitting in the drawer for a month and a half. Susan hoped Rufus would find it, and maybe question her, but he never did. Last week, she even sent him to get a vitamin from the drawer and he didn’t say anything. It had a purple cap this time, instead of blue, like the last one he saw. She showed it to Rufus. On it was a pink cross, though the look on Susan’s face did not seem so positive.
Rufus suddenly became disinterested in telling his fight story.
“Finke kicked me, Rufus,” Susan said, this time more forceful. She took a long pause before continuing, as though even the words were kicking her. “And now…” she looked down at the pillow and plucked a feather from it, “it’s gone.”
Rufus moved the pillow from between them and held her. He felt the neckline of his white collar become wet and warm. “Shh, it’s okay,” he said, too focused on calming her down to question how long she had withheld this new information from him.
“I didn’t want you to worry,” she said, through sobs. “I can’t even raise one child right, for Christ’s sake.”
Rufus stared at the parenting books on the shelf. He hadn’t opened one since Susan bought them, but today he told Susan he’d call into work, and they’d try harder.
While Rufus called into work, Susan saw a flash of blue and orange glide past the crack of the bedroom door. The only room on that side of the hall was the bathroom. “Finke?” she said, moving from the bed to the floor. She peeked out her door, and saw Finke standing with one foot inside the bathroom, and the other still in the hallway. He looked nervous. She signaled Rufus, and as soon as Finke was no longer in sight, they crept to the hallway, to watch from there. Susan saw Finke standing on the wooden step-stool in front of the toilet, his flower swimming trunks around his ankles. She grabbed Rufus’ leg, whispering, “He’s gonna go.”
Finke closed his eyes and turned his head away while lifting the lid. This was strange to Susan, but it allowed her and Rufus to stand directly in the doorway. They watched Finke pee. Some making its way inside, most making puddles on the rim. Finke opened his eyes, looked down, and screamed.
As soon as the high-pitched squeal hit Susan’s ears, she rushed to hug him.
“Susan, look.” Rufus pointed downward at the bowl.
Bits of red flesh were floating at the top of the water.
Susan gasped. She was so panicked earlier when it happened, she forgot to flush. Her doctor said miscarriages can occur anywhere, sporadic as lightning bolts, and thankfully she was at home with her family.
All three of them stared into the toilet. Rufus rested his hand in between Susan’s shoulder blades. Nobody said a word. Earlier, Susan remembered telling Finke, “When they float to the top, they must be dead.” She felt him latch onto her leg. She rested her hand flat on the handle for a moment. Rufus placed his own hand on top of hers. It took both their strength to press it, to watch part of them swivel down the toilet’s mouth, bit by bit, being sucked away, disappearing, as loud as a vacuum.
“Tomorrow, we’ll start over,” Rufus said, closing the lid. “Maybe install a urinal, so you, me, and Finke can go at the same time.”
Both Susan and Finke scrunched their faces together.
“That’s a negative,” Susan said, then signaled Finke to leave the bathroom. She turned toward Rufus, stared at him for a moment, let her wrinkled brow unfurl, and then kissed his goofy grin.
Amanda Kimmerly recently graduated from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, with a bachelor of arts in Journalism and a minor in Creative Writing. Her journalistic articles have been printed in the following publications: The Daily Sentinel, The Pine Log, and Vista Magazine. She won a schoolwide creative writing poetry competition at SFA and was selected to read to an audience of peers and faculty. Currently, she is applying to grad schools to pursue a master's in poetry.
Crystal Barbre is an artist living and working in Seattle. Since graduating from The Gage Academy of Art in 2009, she has been keeping busy painting while rocking out to Europe and Judas Priest. Her work is currently on view in a group show at The Congregation Gallery in Hollywood, and from June 16-30, Hyaena Gallery in Los Angeles will host her first solo show outside of her home state of Washington. Visit Crystal online at crystalbarbre.com.
Careful is Eric Lindley, who lives in New York City. His music has been performed at the Juliard School of Music, The Royal College of Music (UK), The Knitting Factory–NYC, Glasslands Gallery, The Smell, Pianos (in residence), the STEIM Center (Amsterdam, in residence), and Monte Vista Projects. His new EP releases tomorrow from Sounds Super. For more info, visit Careful online at carefulmusic.com.