Smith’s Refurbished Toilet Shop has lived in six locations, all within the same three block radius. The small storefront’s doors were first opened by a man named Gary in Greenpoint, Brooklyn on a cold April morning in 1940. The business was turned over to his reluctant son, Yitzhak, in 1972 .
All sorts of toilets are available on the showroom floor. American Standard, Armitage Shanks, Kohler; black, beige, a highland plaid toilet named Gerald from a previous incarnation of the Ralph Lauren store on the Upper East Side. Urinals line the left side of the store .
At night, the toilets speak to each other. In the afternoon, they talk to Yitzhak’s daughter, Isabelle, much to her dismay. They all have dreams, hopes, and thoughts, like you and me—subjective pasts, and everything. Curtis, a streetwise toilet, resided in the men’s room of an anarchist squat for 25 years before it was turned into condos . Every evening, he competes with Gerald, a plaid Polo toilet, for the affection of Sabrina the Teenage Toilet, a baby-pink special edition made by Kohler in the early 1980s .
Sabrina’s biggest plight is her embarrassment at her own function. For reasons no one understands, she is the favorite night spot for a local bodega cat who roams the neighborhood. No matter how many times they move, Castro’s Spaceshuttle always finds a way into the new store, and to Sabrina’s bowl. Her quiet civility in dealing with this indignity is the most valid reason Curtis could submit to explain his affection towards her. Gerald, being somewhat of a douchebag, has always found the cat’s habit to be Sabrina’s least attractive quality.
1 Yitzhak came to be so reluctant because his father, Gary, only named him Yitzhak to keep him on his toes—they weren’t even Jewish.
2 Gary had not displayed his urinal stock on the sales floor during his tenure, deeming them “too artsy.” When being perfectly honest with himself, Yitzhak finds them a bit gauche as well, but he relents to current trends. This is, after all, a business.
3 It took a former employee two hours and a full can of WD-40 to remove all the band stickers from the inside of Curtis’s bowl. There is still a thin outline of scum where a Toxic Narcotic sticker used to be.
4 Both world-weary and bratty, Sabrina spent the first seven years of her existence in a boutique marketed toward 17-year-olds named Amber when that was still a fashionable name. The store she occupied was located near a more upscale New Jersey mall—the one with the Nordstrom. She then spent a good period as a functioning monument to irony in the rat-trap studio of a hip 20-something stylist who sold her when she moved from the East Village to Williamsburg with her fiancé in 2006. Sabrina made it all the way into the moving van before the stylist’s future life partner found the toilet and took her out of the U-Haul himself.
5 The cat’s owner, Armando the Conflicted Bodega Owner, was a self-proclaimed communist who always wanted to own a racehorse.
Isabelle discovered that the toilets could talk when, at 15, she came out of the back room excited to meet the Australian boys she heard from the employee bathroom. (The employee bathroom’s toilet never speaks). Emerging through a curtain of beads, she discovered the urinals were breaking in their newest member of the ranks, a classic oval floor mount from a shuttered local theater. She would come to learn that all urinals have Australian accents.
Isabelle wasn’t a homely 15, but not a comely one, either. Overcoming her initial shock with the relative ease that only young minds are capable of, Isabelle grew perhaps too accustomed to her newfound in-store companions and found a sort of camaraderie among them. Four years of mainly being friends with toilets have taken something of a toll on her, but these days, Isabelle is coming into her own more and more. She takes classes at Hunter College in the mornings and saves to move out of her father’s apartment. She’s been seeing a classmate from Astoria named Plato. Tonight is their third date. It’s early October in 2012, and everyone is still playing “Mercy” for the sixth consecutive month.
Yitzhak opened the shop a full hour and a half early to do a serious cleaning job—at least, he hoped. He suspected that Theo, his other employee, was interested in his daughter. He’d left the store a mess before Theo’s shift in order to make his closing duties near to impossible. He was attempting to engineer a situation in which he could let Theo go; he was never late, ever. This hadn’t always been the case, but toward the end of high school, Theo’s attitude had changed. Now, Theo wasn’t going to school anywhere, and his eyes were on Isabelle. Theo had recently adopted the saying “I’m putting it all on black,” which sent chills down Yitzhak’s spine: He surmised black meant “a $13.50/hour-job at a used toilet store,” not to mention his only daughter’s bride price.
Unfortunately for Yitzhak, the place was spotless. The glass door shone bright from across the street, even with the blind down. Inside, the urinals’ din was at an unbearable level for any hour, let alone half past eight in the morning, but Yitzhak seemed oblivious to it. They had been laying into the same toilet they’d been bullying since the night it arrived, which incurred the wrath of Gerald’s neighbor, the elderly English, beige Armitage Shanks model named Rupert, who declared the ruckus “bordering on Hispanic.” As you can imagine, this set off a complicated and spirited discussion of race and racism in modern-day New York that ended with an awkward silence and a new understanding of Rupert’s steadfast political views.
The shunning of Rupert the Racist Toilet continued on through midday, past Yitzhak’s lunch hour, and then 30 minutes into Isabelle’s shift. She was late. When she finally appeared, with dark rings underneath her eyes, her father didn’t say much. Concerned with the imagined “Theo situation,” Yitzhak was just relieved he hadn’t called him in as backup—he was sure Theo would have stayed and worked the whole shift with her. Late for his weekly canasta game, Yitzhak left without much in the way of admonishment for his daughter. When he was finally out the door,
she sighed and swept past the beads and onto the showroom floor.
She quickly dried her eyes, which were tearing more out of exhaustion and stress than any deep sadness (though there was a bit of that, too). After yanking down the blind and locking the door, she recounted her night to Sabrina the Teenage Toilet, her longtime confidant. Her date had, for a time, gone well. Plato, the dolt she was seeing, had held up his end of the deal, which was not fucking up several days’ courtship, during which he was reasonably charming and inoffensive. In return, Isabelle had accepted his invitation to come over .
Sabrina took these details in with uncharacteristic patience, waiting for Isabelle to get to the point.
“He just got this really worried look on his face.”
“Did he finish?” interrupted one of the tactless Urinals.
Refusing to acknowledge the idiots’ chorus from stage right, Isabelle continued. “He just stopped right in the middle, said he couldn’t, and bailed.”
The toilets were rapt. Sabrina opened her lid, paused, closed it, then opened it again.
“So, like, that’s that, I guess—he’s just not into you,” she mustered. Isabelle gave her a quick look of hurt—it wasn’t that Sabrina wasn’t right; that just wasn’t the point.
Refusing to get into another convoluted argument with a toilet she regularly spoke to, Isabelle closed the topic. “That fucking loser.”
It was dark outside. Isabelle retrieved her laptop from the back and turned on Netflix for the store. She and the toilets were working their way through season three of Friday Night Lights. (The toilets were transfixed by the family drama.) While the coach doled out Texan values through strained PC speakers, Gerald eyed the lone bidet, Betty , thinking, What if?
Across the street, Castro’s Spaceshuttle surveyed the corner. He saw Theo walking past, on his way to a bar down the block. They nodded curtly at each other. Theo saw the light on at the toilet shop and decided to stop in and say hello .
6 Some of the toilets felt this relationship to be lopsided and unhealthy, with Sabrina taking an older sister role that was not entirely in the spirit of leadership and maturity as much as a platform for self-aggrandizement.
7 She had taken the train to Astoria with all the baby actors heading home from Midtown after another day of auditions and service jobs.
8 Theo Gumbel-Grant was born in the June of 1990 to Ted Grant and Tia Gumbel, the latter of whom was known to her friends as Moonrise. Moonrise was still recovering from her time spent in a West Coast cult named The Church of Apocalyptic Irony when she met the late-’80s weed magnate Ted Grant on a yoga retreat in the Catskills. A second-generation woodsy libertarian, Tia mistook his vast grow house (one of the first of its kind) as the mark of a free spirit. Truthfully, it signified what it usually does: a dismissal of the law and a distaste for taxation, or government of any kind, really. Recalling this meeting, Tia was fond of telling strangers that, even though Ted was born in June, he had been “such a Pisces about the whole thing.” No one had any clue what she meant. Theo’s parents split up and remarried no fewer than four times in 17 years, moving him everywhere in New York state except for New York City. Whenever Theo begged that their on-again, off-again family make the big leap, his father was fond of saying, “I won’t join the cop party so you can wear jean shorts and chase rich tail.” On his seventeenth birthday, Theo moved to New York alone, which his parents were fine with. “Freedom is important to a young man, and you should be free like a fish. If you need to swim upstream, swim,” his mother said. “Just don’t become a cop and arrest me,” his father said. And so Theo left without ceremony. He took up the first job he found, same with the first apartment—a summer of trimming his dad’s crops afforded him start-up capital, if nothing else. The surrogate family he found in the toilet shop made up for its banal insanity, banal insanity still being a few notches higher on the emotional-availability scale than benign neglect. That this manifested into a deep longing for Isabelle was unfortunate, understandable, and largely harmless, if a bit hard to watch.
Theo’s knock scared the shit out of Isabelle, who had settled into her Netflix. He’d had a few drinks, and he felt like an idiot talking to her. (He had no idea she wasn’t listening, and was too tone-deaf to tap into that even when he was sober.) Gerald pinned Theo in a dicey conversation about immigration policy in the EU. Gerald found a natural ally in some of the urinals, who had always been politically problematic in a heather-gray way, which was only recently becoming truly troubling. By and large, their arguments seemed to be against countries that didn’t have a lot of urinals. Theo wasn’t altogether sure he wasn’t setting the bar too high by expecting talking bathroom fixtures to maintain a worldly front.
Isabelle headed to the corner store to get her own beer, returning with a Polish beer with only consonants in its name. Theo kept asking her what was wrong until she was thoroughly sick of him. Isabelle had no idea why Theo was always asking her things. (In a few years, she would immediately be able to detect the woeful “sudden interest without any substance,” at which point she’d react with pity.) She mentioned an impending date with her mother the next day10 and left without fanfare soon after.
Agnes lived in Tribeca with her fourth husband, Ernie the Anesthesiologist, and their small dog, Magoo. Isabella did not generally enjoy visiting her mother, who, in sharp contrast to her father, viewed Isabella more as a sister/friend than as her daughter. But when Ernie left the room a few weeks ago, Isabelle grabbed his phone and went through his search history, only to find the following inquiries:
Hentai girl cop
kmart astor place hours
is beer carbonated?
49ers equipment manager
vodka tampon deaths
Shark tank Kuwait
Harmony Korine imdb
Dumbfounded and a bit worried, she had vowed to keep a closer eye on Ernie and started spending more time with her mother.
On this visit, Agnes and Isabelle sat outside at an overpriced brunch place, where Agnes prodded her only daughter about her blossoming love life. Isabelle had some questions about it herself, but by no means the guts nor desire to bring them front and center. Best to trust the toilets with some things.
Uncharacteristically, Agnes asked after Yitzhak, whom she usually pretended she had never married or even known.
“How is your father?” Agnes began.
Isabella’s high eyebrows played defense as her lips pursed and her nostrils flared. She said nothing11 .
“Oh, fucking calm down—it’s about his store, which, by the way, you really should not be working at anymore.”
Agnes wanted to sell her ex-husband her bidet12 .
“I think our dogsitter used it”
“Your dog-sitter is a woman. Are you talking about Theo?”
She had brought Theo on her last trip to Tribeca as an emotional shield against her mother and to punish them both for asking so many questions. She had correctly guessed that her coworker’s eagerness to please would drive her mother up the wall.
“He’s cute. If you were doing better, I’d say you should jump on it just for fun. Maybe, if you transfer schools, you could text him when you’re home for the holidays?”
“Honey, you know what I mean.”
Theo had, in fact, used the bidet, and it hadn’t sat well with him. Jean hadn’t said a word to the boy, which was not uncommon outside of the shop, but instead made an audible hissing noise a split second before shooting scalding hot water up his ass. He hadn’t said anything at the time, save for remarking on the building’s exceptionally hot water.
Jean had been a problem for some time now.
The bidet was custom-ordered by Coco Chanel. During the German occupation of Paris, the designer commissioned Jean with money provided by her Nazi lover. When the Allies took back the city, Ms. Chanel fled, and Jean fell victim to a confused US soldier from Somewhere Falls, Ohio. The soldier, known to his troop as “Country” Joe Bitkins, did not know what a bidet was, but “knew a poopin’ hole when he saw one” and delighted in his victory by using Jean.
Indignant, the bidet released her hiss and shot of boiling water. This became, forever after, her signature mode of communication. Country Joe got up, returned with a sledgehammer, and broke Jean in two. Two weeks later, Country Joe died of internal complications.
After the rubble cleared, the bidet was identified, reconstructed, and refurbished—not for use, but for display in a small museum dedicated to French fashion. When the museum closed in the mid-’70s due to a loss of funding, it auctioned off its less valuable items, Jean among them.
Soon after Jean reached the auction house, a three-wheeled car lost control of its front wheel and drove into the face of the building, killing a man within. Rather than blaming the driver or her car’s manufacturer, the family sued the auction house, rendering it bankrupt. It closed nine months later and sat in disrepair for decades, unsold and unwanted, until it was sold to an American clearing house. Jean sat in a warehouse in Long Island City, where she was acquired by Sotheby’s13 , who, in turn, sold her to Ernie, Isabelle’s shifty father-in-law. Soon after installing Jean, they had come to suspect something was very wrong with the fixture. They wanted her out of their home as soon as possible.
Curtis watched a guy nearly drown in his bowl once. The man was some White Power type, but still, the erstwhile-sticker-covered toilet felt uncomfortable with the incident, and he never forgot it.
At the toilet shop’s last location, Curtis had been able to see the sidewalk. The block was quiet, spare for the dive bar on the corner. He’d only seen one fight in his time facing the street, but the bloody boy’s face as he staggered away recalled the man’s face gasping for air in his bowl. Curtis wasn’t sure he ever wanted to be installed again. Not that anything about his make or model begged for purchase; he was a bargain—a discontinued model with an outdated flush valve.
These days, he preferred watching the sun creep across the store in the morning, tucked away on a side display, waiting his turn for the light. He liked to listen to the urinals bullshit about whatever—he even let them call him Naked Curt, which he thought sounded fun only with an Australian accent. With the typical American Standard, he found it pretty condescending. “Typical American Standard bullshit.” Sometimes, it was pointed out that Sabrina, his friend and the clear object of his affections, was also a classic American Standard model, only painted pink. Curtis always replied, “She knows better than that, though.”
Sabrina and her friends chatted in the corner14 . They broke down the previous night’s episodes of Friday Night Lights they’d ripped through with Isabelle before Theo had shown up. An older toilet in the back corner, Janet Collinrock, was taken with the coach’s exemplary moral fiber. She repeated, “He’s a character written from a different time,” until everyone was relieved to hear Yitzhak’s keys jangling in the door.
Yitzhak, able business man that he was, had been early to the internet, to computers, to phones, to pagers. The toilet shop’s website made a flushing sound when you clicked on the “enter” page until he was forced to scale back the bandwidth due to low site traffic15.
14 You might wonder, and yes, the toilets, because of the sedentary nature, are friends with whoever they are placed near, for better or worse.
15 The site “GreenpointToilet.com” received a decent amount of traction recently as part of a “web archeology” project of a young internet artist attending SAIC, though the student’s instructor found it juvenile, saving his praise for a young woman who made collages out of glitchy pornography.
Through this early jump towards technology that he found out about what had been going on with his then-wife Agnes, apparently for quite some time.
Agnes had once seen something in Yitzhak. She had seen, perhaps mistakenly, a glimmer of hope. Not hope in the sense of comfort and love that can only be forged by family (of blood relation or otherwise), no. She had seen the brightest glimmer of hope one can see: the glimmer of hope that lifts you out of the doldrums you grew up in. The kind that illuminates the dark room you stood in when you first saw it.
Unfortunately for all parties involved, Yitzhak held the skeleton key to all doors of the former kind of hope, and none of the latter. Simply put: He would love her until she left, but he would never take her far enough away from her past so that she might have the time, room, and inclination to love him back. Agnes was not a cold soul, though, to meet her now, one might assume a chill ran to her very core.
All of this is to say: Agnes and Yitzhak were madly in love, but within a few years, she cheated on him, and did so often, until the day he saw her search history. 56K modems were new, and search history was not yet a phrase often seen in divorce filings. On the wild frontiers of divorce law, Isabelle watched as her parents blazed new trails16 .
Curtis felt for Yitzhak, but never managed to say anything to him. Sometimes, when the boss was truly, Curtis stared at him and wondered what he cared about. Curtis was the only toilet remaining from those earlier days. Before Agnes, and far before Isabelle, he was picked up off a street corner by accident during one of the shop’s many moves. He had been placed to the curb for sanitation to pick up.
On this day, like most days, Curtis kept light tabs on Yitzhak’s morning movements, as they helped mark the time. By the third time Yitzhak crossed by, Curtis knew it was lunch time, and help was arriving. Isabelle came through the door pushing a bidet on a skateboard, wearing a long look on her face.
Agnes had not been asking her daughter so much as e asing her into the idea that, after their light lunch, two handlers in a van would be coming to pick up Isabelle and the bidet, both to be taken back to Smiths. Isabelle dug her heels in as best she knew how. Minutes before, her mother had undercut her for working at the shop at all, but she’d invited her daughter over to broker a toilet sale all along. Isabelle stated as much. She talked about compassion and respect. Then, as a matter of personal policy, she stated the obvious again.
16 Needless to say, she learned about dating sites before you did, and found them as disappointing as you have, without ever having to log in.
It had occurred to her that she had gone to see her mother fully knowing something like this would happen. She finished her sandwich, wheeled the bidet downstairs on her stepbrother’s skateboard, and met the movers before Agnes could say another careless word.
Yitzhak lowered his glasses when he saw what his daughter was wheeling in. A vintage, powder-pink bidet, he thought. “There’s something for Pinterest!” he exclaimed, to the alarm and trepidation of his only daughter. She was in no rush to answer the next question.
“Where did you find this beauty?”
He didn’t react anything like Isabelle expected when he learned it came from his ex-wife. He barely reacted at all. A casual frown, a nod, and a shrug.
“Well, shit, it’s a collector’s item; let’s put it by the front, next to the plaid number. Very his-and-hers, for the blogs.”
What toilet blogs her father was referring to, Isabelle was unsure. One of her deepest fears was unwittingly becoming a bathroom-fixture maven, which of course she already was17 . The accident happened right as these thoughts were running through her head. The board slipped out faster than anticipated and Jean slid quickly down the worn grip tape, smacking into Gerald the Plaid Polo toilet and cracking his cover, to Yitzhak’s horror.
“Everything she touches turns to shit, Isabelle! Everything she fucking touches, it’s all just shit! She only hands me shit, I swear to Christ!”
Isabelle grimaced, handling the situation as best she could, though Gerald would have to be moved to the back, next to Curtis, in the sale section. Yitzhak was already in the back, grabbing an old 3” platform for Jean to be centered on. There was a bump and the sound of breaking glass, followed by a healthy, “…are you FUCKING kidding me,” a clear rebirth of the previous outburst, rather than a new thought altogether.
A less observant child might have gone back to check on their father, but Isabelle knew better. He came storming out a minute later, his anger finally bubbling over. He leaned the small podium against a nearby toilet and strode out of his store muttering goodbyes.
A newer toilet, Petunia, spoke first: “Before you start in, Gerald, nobody gives a shit.”
“Always thought that was the weirdest turn of phrase for a toilet,” a contemplative urinal said to nobody in particular.
17 She made fun of an early boyfriend’s parents for their choice of kitchen faucet. The boy, 13, couldn’t make heads or tails of the comment and continued to awkwardly feel her up.
The cacophony which ensued drove Isabelle to the kitchenette in back, where she discovered a cloudy old bong in several pieces on the floor. She’d never known her father to be any particular kind of stoner, but if she was honest with herself, it fit. Her phone chirped, announcing a deluge of texts from her dad.
The bong, the texts explained, belonged to his friend, their neighbor Antoni, who wore his balding ponytail well. “We get high in the back after work sometimes,” he wrote simply. As with most discoveries that one’s parents are human beings, this would’ve been nice to know earlier, maybe sophomore year, when Isabelle was more interested in finding easy places to smoke weed.
Theo opened the shop the next morning to find Castro’s Spaceshuttle throwing up great gobs of green goo in the entryway, stumbling like a drunk. At the first sign of light through the crack in the door, he threw himself outside, shooting past the boy and knocking burning coffee onto his face and shirt. Hungover and covered in burning coffee, Theo opened the door fully and stepped into a store filled with (and stinking of) cat vomit. He slammed the door behind him, expecting the usual din, but was met with silence.
He yelled “hello?!” repeatedly. Tapping toilet backs, slapping urinals, and upending stacked sinks, he circled the sales floor for a good 15 minutes before sitting on his ass in wonder, scanning the room. He lay down in the aisle, quiet. He stood up 20 minutes later, went to the bodega, and bought a 20 oz. of coke, and four different flavors of jerky sticks.
When Isabelle reluctantly made her way to the back room to punch in, she noticed the junk food wrappers in the trash and figured her father had been back again last night, unbothered by the loss of Antoni’s bong, which, she now realized, had probably been her father’s. She knew otherwise within seconds of crossing the beads into the main room. Theo was in the corner, sitting on Curtis, chin on the recessed window, peering out into the alley behind Antoni’s repair shop next door. Theo explained that there was silence, and that he didn’t know why. He told her about the cat. A warm look crawled across Isabelle’s face, even while Theo’s leg still shook. His nervous laugh and upward palms were more dear today than yesterday.
Theo remembered the day he found out that she heard them too, and how happy he had been to find out she’d known all along. That day, Isabelle unwittingly signed into a blood pact with her new coworker; something which was potentially null and void on this new day. Maybe Theo had never needed an “in” so severe, but he had grown into the role, texting her he was bored when he was with with friends, texting her just to text. After finding the store quiet, he spent most of the day getting really high, worried they’d never talk again, like that was the only basis of their friendship, which was of course, a one-sided sham anyway.
Isabelle made a quick run to the store, grabbing more of the big bottles of Polish beer and marching straight back to lock up early. Naturally, Theo thought he’d freaked her out, that she “knew” everything, journeying deep down a narcissistic shame spiral in the seven minutes it took Isabelle to grab beers for them. As the bell signalled her return and her perfume faintly washed into the room, he let a single, weird, lonely tear out of the right side of his right eye, barely flicking it away before turning around to face the door. What followed was, in both of their hindsight, a horrific outpouring of feelings and words and experiences.
Of course he’d never mentioned his mom, or his mom’s cult. He’d never mentioned the family business. To his disappointment, Isabelle found the cult terribly interesting, and his father’s growing operation was not only OK, she assured him, touching his arm, but politically progressive and “right.” He had always hated this reaction to his life story, and it would have broken the spell she had over him altogether, except when she touched his shoulder he completely stopped listening to what she was saying, and focused on the fact that she was touching his arm. He looked up at her stupidly, and just as she withdrew her hand, they heard voices at the door.
Antoni entered first, his glorious ponytail spilling down over the kind of desert camo vest otherwise primarily owned by wishfully intrepid young photographers. It lay naturally on him, allowing his yellow and pink Grateful Dead–designed Lithuanian basketball shirt to peek out playfully below. With this outfit came the deepest smell of decent pot. Antoni and Yitzhak stopped dead in their tracks and looked at the young employees, who were now sitting a safe distance apart, staring at them, gripping their beers, caught. Antoni mercifully broke the silence: “Wanna get high?”
Deflated, the room eased into exhaled laughter. The daughter and employee saw a rare smirk on Yitzhak’s face for a second or three. And so they found themselves, a highly circumstantial multigenerational cypher, turning the showroom into a high school parking lot, and for once the room was filled with human voices late at night, speaking over one another, reaching for the point.
“How the fuck could you possibly have a kid now in good conscience? How could I do that?!” exclaimed Theo, waving his hands wildly in the air, nearly burning his employer with the lit joint, before folding his fingers inward, pointing towards himself, and repeatedly stabbing at his chest in the culmination of his apocryphal, practiced argument against having kids before what was, to him, the end of the clearly ending world.
“This is what fathers want to hear!” Yitzhak said excitedly, pointing at Theo and looking directly at his daughter through the haze.
On the equal playing field of intoxication, this was the night that adults finally looked the younger people in the room in the eyes, and told them frankly that they were terrified, had no idea what had happened to their lives, and no idea what to do next. They were not yet old enough to realize that they were being told all this because they were now adults as well. It was quite an
informal bar and bat mitzvah. The real kind, which happens at bars and holiday parties instead of rented ballrooms and otherwise poorly attended synagogues.
They talked until late. Yitzhak and Antoni unburdened the funniest, most shameful moments of their past lives, naturally coasting past the most truthful and uncomfortable parts with shop talk. Antoni, a bachelor’s bachelor and practiced uncle, held court, told weird, dirty Polish jokes, and gently guided his companions away from too much toilet talk—and too much sharing18 . Theo, keen in this respect, nodded to everyone and left first.
Life coasted for several weeks. Isabelle moved comfortably through (now quiet) days at work. Yitzhak, back in his groove as well, was unbothered by the retro baby-pink monument to his ex-wife for sale in the front of the shop.
Theo was, on the other hand, blowing it, albeit privately for the moment. Living in a basement in the dead of New York winter, he had sunk away into himself. A leak left a semi-permanent puddle at the foot of his bed. After two months, he finally called his landlord, who sent his brother to take a look at it two weeks after that, who said it was “unfixable.” Instead of raising hell, Theo named it “Lake Theo,” moved a raised storage unit over the parts he could, and kept it moving. Every few nights, he’d kick in his sleep, throwing something off the bed into the lake. He’d notice after a day or two and decide to never use that item again.
Yitzhak and Antoni went off together at night. Isabelle actually hoped her father was chasing women. She imagined him in a sports bar, meeting a nurse, then sighed: Whomever she imagined him pairing off with was still a bully. She had begun to casually see a decent guy, the way people do. Patrick was reasonably sure of himself, made rent, and could handle his drugs, of which he did few. Mellow, and only moderately full of shit, she felt good about her first non–New York native. She only faded on him when he prattled on about the “Old New York,” pining for a city he wasn’t raised in.
At the shop, silence still reigned. Theo tried coaxing them. Maybe they were asleep. M aybe the age of the talking toilets has come to a close. He was pressing back his biggest fear, and the most likely scenario: that he was fucking crazy. Maybe it was a shared hallucination. Maybe there was a gas leak. Maybe there was mold. Every night he worked, he would spend an extra hour after closing, scouring the place for leaks, mold, whatever. He pried up the floorboards and got drunk by himself.
On one of these nights, Isabelle came in. Theo had the good sense to not fully explain the whats and whys of his cleaning project. They caught up, and he felt warm. He said funny things and asked more questions.
18 Antoni had once attended an intervention for his sister completely by accident. Ever since, he had become an avowed keeper of pleasantries
They finally fucked right there on the showroom floor, spilling the second half of the second bottle of cheap red wine across the concrete, breaking a vase. She told him she thought he’d be rougher, and so maybe he overcompensated. He thought about the guy she was seeing, but didn’t rock the boat. He pushed her over the back of a toilet they’d called Millie, pulling her hair up to face the row behind her.
In these throes, she heard a whisper, to her horror: “We’re all watching!”
She looked up, startled as hell. She promptly pushed Theo out of her, grabbed her jeans and top, and made quick moves for the bathroom in the back. She looked around, taking stock of the neat bundles of Costco cleaning supplies. The chrome shelving unit practically looked like a retail installation, and it was calming. Then: a voice, mellow but nasal, Buscemi-esque. It came from the employee toilet, forever silent, until now.
“You’re not going to like this..,” he began. Isabel’s eyes welled up. Having used this toilet her whole life, she had long since put aside the idea that it, too, might have thoughts. When it spoke, the seat did indeed go up and down with the peaks and valleys of his voice, flecks of pee and toilet water occasionally flicking from the lid.
“Pardon me,” he said, sounding deeply embarrassed. It was becoming clear that his shame outweighed hers. “It’s not good manners to speak with the people who use you. What would we possibly talk about?”
Isabelle nodded, kneading her forehead into her knees. She felt too much for the toilet to tell him to shut the fuck up, though she desperately wanted to. He pressed on, getting past apologies and to the point. The showroom toilets were silent in terror. He gave her the quick and dirty story of their showpiece bidet, Jean, whose name she had never known.
“She doesn’t speak. She can’t.” Made in prison labor camps, lacquered by dying men, and cursed by Nazi occultists, Jean was an evil object, wretched in both creation and existence. Her seething hatred only escaped in bursts of steam and fire. Sitting isolated on the floor, her dark energy infected the defenseless porcelain beings around her. Installed in a home, the bidet was a portal to hell.
Even though the toilet, whom Isabelle now knew was named Cornelius, pressed on in horrifying detail, Isabelle was nearly dressed, save for the socks and shoes she’d left in the showroom. Sobering up, she grimaced at the thought of Theo out there waiting for her. She wondered if he’d even had the common sense to get dressed, or whether she’d walk back out only to see his wide eyes and hard-on. She left the bathroom, Cornelius in mid-sentence, detailing a famous tragedy inflicted by Jean in the mid-’70s19 . He trailed off as the door slammed, and flushed himself: toilet tears.
On the showroom floor, Isabelle was relieved to see that Theo wasn’t just not-naked, but had left altogether. She saw that he’d placed her socks neatly in her shoes, with a note underneath. Her eyes scanned it, then rolled skyward. It read, “I know he’s nice, but I’m in love with you.”
Dramatic; overreaching; applying pressure where none was needed, she thought. She raided the weed and whiskey from the back and perched in the shop defiantly, getting fucked up and staring at the pale pink bidet.
Isabelle woke up on the shop floor around 5:30 AM with the immediate need to throw up everywhere. She swallowed the puke when she got to the door of the bathroom and remembered Cornelius—his sad, wavering voice—but not before she considered using one of the floor displays, only stopping herself by remembering the good times. She kept seeing Patrick. She took a week off. They camped out in his apartment for three days before the guilt set in enough for Isabelle to shower and get dropped off to visit her mom—and finally check up on Ernie, who, given his ownership of an anti-Semetic bidet, was at least as troubling as his search history implied.
The doorman was asleep. Upon reaching her mother’s apartment, Isabelle found the front door slightly ajar and walked in on a scene she was wholly unprepared for. Ernie stood in the living room in full Nazi regalia, sans pants. Red banners were splashed on the walls behind him. Her mother was on her knees, her face pressed to the floor, a gag slipping out of her mouth, her hands bound behind her back. Ernie thwacked her with a strap. Isabelle grabbed the small table by the entryway and threw it against the wall of the living room, screaming the reprise, “What in the fuck!” The $20,000 antique side table lay in several pieces across the atrocious faux-Persian palace rug. It had landed a few feet from her mother’s feet20.
Fifteen minutes later, Ernie and Agnes sat opposite Isabelle on two of the only pieces of furniture left intact. In addition to the table, Isabelle had destroyed a lamp, three books, and a family portrait. She had grabbed Ernie’s riding crop in her rage; Ernie sat across the couch fuming, his arms folded, with welts across his face, neck, and bald head. Before he had a moment to tuck it away, Isabelle had whacked his penis as well.
Agnes was the first to speak. “Well, you certainly aren’t welcome here anymore,” she said pointedly, her hand on Ernie’s forearm. Isabelle stared straight at her stepfather, even as she responded to her mother.
19 Jean is responsible for Elvis’s death.
20 These were, on (accidental) closer examination, bound as well.
“We’re going to talk with him like that, and those on the walls?” blindly gesturing towards to the Nazi banners hanging on either side of the bedroom doorway.
“We are having an adult conversation, in my house, and we’ll have the conversation now. It’s going to be over in two minutes, anyway. I’m serious when I say you aren’t welcome here anymore.”
Isabelle’s eyes narrowed; she’d heard this threat for less, and she didn’t believe it anymore. “So, you guys are actually Nazis?”
Agnes nearly laughed at this. “Goodness, no, it’s just a sex thing.”
The couple both shook their heads emphatically on “goodness, no,” and embraced slightly at “sex thing.” This was surely hell. Isabelle brought up Jean, referencing her by name. Her mother looked sad and worried. She made quiet remarks to Ernie, who appeared sympathetic, nodded, and left. Agnes came over and sat by her daughter’s side so tenderly that Isabelle slid three feet down the couch.
Agnes leaned as close to Isabelle as she could without fear of actual, physical retaliation. “Are they talking again?”
Isabelle replied firmly: “Fucking forget it.” Agnes decided she was unwilling to be dragged back into an old, ugly, circular argument, and sought instead to solder the wound.
“I never knew what the fuck you and your dad were on about, but you don’t bring that here. I wanted to sell a nice bidet, and your father sells bidets. What is wrong with you people?” Her tan fingers clasped a swastika-laden bikini top in anger. As Isabelle’s mouth swung open to respond, Agnes pressed on. “You can’t be reasoned with, and never could be. I’ll be expecting you to pay for all this.”
Theo had, in fact, sat there in his underwear for at least five minutes, trying to keep his boner and look casual as possible. Among the silent, petrified toilets, bidets, and urinals, he saw his reflection in porcelain, and had to look away. The entire place reeked of cleaning supplies more than sex. It took another two minutes to go from wondering what he was doing there, to getting dressed, leaving, coming back, finding the paper, and writing the note. Ten minutes after that, he walked back to get rid of the note, but saw her walking away from the shop, and knew that it was too late.
When he got a text from Yitzhak at seven in the morning the following day, he’d nearly died, but, of course, he was only contacted to see if he’d be willing to work doubles—Isabelle had taken the week off.
He set about the next few days selling toilets like a man possessed. He sold Gerald, the plaid Polo toilet, back to a RRL employee and his pregnant girlfriend. The man was so pleased with the purchase, and Theo’s authenticity, that he returned two hours later with gifts: a dub of regs, a copy of The Fountainhead, and a jackknife, and thanked Theo for “keeping it real.” Mystified, Theo kept selling. All the names had to go. He convinced a young financial officer, who’d come in for a piece of pipe, to install a urinal in his man cave. Upon seeing the day’s totals the following morning, Yitzhak remarked that he hadn’t seen such salesmanship since Antoni had worked in the shop 15 years prior, a few moves before this location. Theo looked both ways as if there were someone else to hear the news, or maybe appreciate it. There wasn’t.
Four days into his whirl of salesmanship, Theo sold the pale pink bidet to a young blogger. Melanie had come into the store on the recommendation of her friends, the RRL guy and his wife. She wore a cardigan. They flirted, but he barely realized it. After he shoved the unusually heavy bidet into the back of her Zipcar, they exchanged numbers. When he returned into the shop,he was greeted as a liberator—by the toilets, out loud, for the first time since Jean had entered the shop.
“It was a mesmerizing hell,” remarked a small, pale blue toilet of the cursed bidet’s stay. In the past, Theo might have received these words with some gravity, but he just looked around smiling, responded only briefly, and felt resounding sadness. Things were, in this moment, clear to him. He flipped the sign to CLOSED , walked out of the shop, and locked the door.
When Theo told Yitzhak he was quitting, the old man assumed it was because of his daughter. “She’s a beautiful young woman,” he began, charitably. It wasn’t that, Theo insisted, in the way you insist something that is true isn’t.
On his last day, Theo moved Sabrina into the corner next to Curtis, the sweet, elderly toilet who would never sell, and did so with a customer in the store, as to not talk about the matter at all. The truth was, it was half out of bitterness. He was sure that Curtis would regret being next to this annoying toilet constantly. Isabelle stopped by shortly after. She said she liked the way he’d arranged the store, and that she wasn’t planning on coming back, either.
That night, following Castro’s Spaceshuttle up the road to meet his friends at the bar down the block, he gave Melanie one last try. She had texted Theo while driving back to her apartment across from Prospect Park. He’d excitedly texted back twice and heard nothing. Days later, he called only to hear a sobbing voice explain that she’d died earlier in the week, texting a boy she had just met. Apparently, the kissy-face emoji sent to Theo came through moments before a semi turned her car into shrapnel. The bidet was found on the site of the crash, intact.
The next morning, Yitzhak opened up his shop, whistling. He was not alone, in the world or in business. He had his health, and he had his toilets.