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separate but separate
The Clean Restroom Gospel of Salvation
Author’s Note: Everything herein is true. Well, more or less true. ‘More’ because the writing is inspired by true incidents, because truth is stranger than fiction and because frankly, my imagination just ain’t good enough to make it all up. ‘Less’ because I have changed the names of the people involved and because I don’t relish getting yelled at by friends and relatives, who say “We read that crap you write on ‘The Dew’ and you better not be using my real name, jerk!”
“Sorry for the delay,” the Delta representative says. “Flight 2270 is in a stack pattern, circling north Georgia with a dozen or so other incoming. Can’t get clearance to land because of the storms. Weather folks say give it another 25 minutes.”
I’m no good at waiting. Problem is today, I am without my ever changing ‘just-in-case-there-is-a-delay’ book I always keep handy. “Drat!” However, while I have no talent for standing-in-line or just plain ‘waiting’, as a writer, I can still listen with my naked ears–and with NSA-like aplomb too. It is ‘sport’ I can still do as well as ever and without getting caught.
A few days ago, I go over to the airport to meet my cousin, Dennis, who’s flying up from Orlando. The airport terminal is cavernous and as wide as the Southern plains. I bet you could park one of those Boeing 787 Dreamliners inside the place. Outside, it’s pouring rain, one of those notorious Dog-Days of Summer storms that pop in late afternoon just when you think you’ve escaped scary weather for day. Ha! No such luck.
On the inside, you can hear the rat-tat-tat of raindrops against the roof as well as the din coming from an airport atrium awash with people coming and going — and waiting. The conversation I’m attuned to is barely within earshot. It is between a twenty-something-ish woman and another female, who looks to be a few years older. They look so much alike that surely they must be sisters. Both are tastefully dressed, both wearing apparel quality that’s between Target and Talbot. Like me, the two women are waiting . Maybe they’re even waiting for Flight 2270.
While I never got her real name, in my own head I refer to the younger woman as ‘Nellie.’ Through my peripheral vision, I can see Nellie shift her body weight back and forth — from one foot to the other. She does this a dozen times, like someone in a ‘tight’ to find an unoccupied stall in a crowded restroom.
The older sister I’ve named ‘Allie’ for that surely — as it turns out — it is what young Nellie is seeking right now.
“Baby girl, it’s going to work out fine…,” says Allie.
“GURRL, I wish you coulda seen it. It was like the cesspool from Hell,” says Nellie, anxious and nearly breathless.
“Hunh!?” “The rest of the place, they kept kinda halfway ok, but that bathroom … whooooo …if I didn’t know better I’d have thought Jeremy and his brother were raised by wolves… maybe pigs!”
“Un hunh, I see. But they’re boys, remember… I mean they’re men. Men are slobs.”
“Jeremy and Jerome’s sister say ol’ girl is a clean freak. Say she a snoop, too. So, I made him clean out the medicine cabinet fo she be up all in everybody’s bidness,” Nellie says, nervously looking at the big computer board keeping track of flight arrivals and departures.
“But it’s their apartment. You moved in with them. I know it’s temporary, until after the wedding. But you just can’t go in and takeover…,”
“Don’t matter. I tole Jeremy and Jerome if they was gonna live with me, the bathroom had to be kept tip top. His momma already don’t like the idea of me movin’ in for this few months before the wedding. So I sure don’ want his aunt judging me and reportin’ to their mama about me not being a good housekeeper… just because her twin boys don’t know how to keep no bathroom.”
“I think their sister was just trying to scare you.” Allie says. “Damn heifer!”
“I spent three hours cleaning that bathroom up last night. Swabbed it up and down. Twice. With Pine-sol. Did the mirror and chrome with Windex. Got the grout with a toothbrush. Smells like…like… cookies in there now.’
“Smell and look like Jeremy and Jerome never lived there. Queen a’ England be proud to use that bathroom now,” Nellie says with a self-satisfied look.
“Wow! Well you know what Momma and Daddy always laughed about…” “…that clean restrooms was the key to marital bliss and eternal salvation; the main reason they stayed married for thirty years. Separate checking accounts and…”
“…SEPARATE BATHROOMS,” they both finish the sentence in unison, tittering and laughing to themselves over the airport’s din.
“Separate but equal,’ Nellie laughs.
“No, baby”, Allie laughs. “In Momma and Daddy’s case, it was SEPARATE BUT SEPARATE! Once, before you were born, a pipe broke in the downstairs bathroom that Daddy used all the time. It happened on a weekend and you know our Daddy wasn’t gonna pay no weekend plumber’s rates. They had to wait a few days. Daddy swore Momma made him use the restroom at the Exxon station around the corner before she let him use hers!”
I first came across ‘The Clean Restroom Gospel of Salvation’ when I was a small boy, in the Fifties. Now one of my truths is that I was largely raised by women. As a result of my Dad’s death in a Korean War P.O.W. camp, my mother became a widow shortly after my birth. Mom had four sisters and countless female friends, all of whom had been awarded the title of ‘aunt’. Accordingly, there was almost always a ‘klatch of aunts’ hovering around our house. All my aunts were talented, opinionated, strong-willed –and good for spare change whenever I found myself a little short. One of them, Aunt Vera was a woman of manners and breeding, who bore a striking resemblance to TV Andy Griffith’s ‘Aunt Bee’, if ‘Bee Taylor’ had been a light-skinned African-American woman. For as long as I ever knew her, Vera, who was really Mom’s older first cousin, knew two things with ‘all the certainty of gravity’: professional wrestling was real and cleanliness was next to Godliness.
If cleanliness was next to Godliness, then Vera was the meme’s patron saint, its poster-girl. She also had a pet theory that God was a female and as such was “…right partial to clean restrooms.” Furthermore, on Judgment Day, Vera theorized that you would not only be evaluated by what you did in your allotted time on Earth but also by the condition in which you left the bathroom on the day you died. So according to Aunt Vera, since you never had any idea when you were going to ‘buy the farm,’ it was in your best interests to keep the restroom facilities clean at all times.
In those young days, I was a true believer and didn’t question Aunt Vera on any of her dodgy theories, though I was more than a little skeptical about them all. I remained quiet though, one reason being that I’d witnessed her wrath when Uncle Roosevelt said he’d ‘had enough’ of Vera’s delusions and insisted, against the better judgment of other family members, on telling Vera that ‘Mr. Wrestling’, Freddie Blassie, and ‘Gorgeous George’ were just well trained, athletic actors and stunt-men. Another reason I said nothing was because I kinda enjoyed Aunt Vera taking me to the live wrestling matches in downtown Atlanta on Friday nights. There I could see Mr. Wrestling jump off the top rope and put The Assassin or some other scoundrel to sleep in the middle of the ring by using his patented Sleeper Hold. A higher truth is I didn’t question Aunt Vera on her theories was because I loved her —and also because of the cash she was mostly always good for.
While Vera practiced The Clean Restrooms Gospel of Salvation every day, she really went through her paces on the second and fourth Sundays when she cooked dinner and entertained a dozen or more folks associated with the Greater Gibraltar Missionary Baptist Church, where she’d been a founding member for years. The dozen included four people from our family, her pastor, his wife and a rotating group of other charter members of Greater Gibraltar. The Sunday clique also included long-time friends but also occasionally a few folks Vera confessed were highly judgmental busybodies from the church, who fit into a class of people later to become known in the American cultural milieu as ‘frenemies.’
To be sure, churches were political institutions even then and Greater Gibraltar was reputed to be more political than most. There was always some infighting going on at Gibraltar and to let Vera tell it, judgments were always being made. In Vera’s opinion, one of the “…the number one places them heifers judge you on…” was the condition of the bathroom and the contents of the medicine cabinet.
Now while the bathroom at Aunt Vera’s was always spotless, on the second and fourth Saturdays Vera spent hours cleaning, mopping, scraping, polishing, perfuming, painting and sometimes replacing various parts in the one bathroom in the house. At the end of these Saturday sessions, the bathroom would not only be clean, but dazzlingly so. It also smelled of the greatest and most persuasive odor known to humankind — ‘New Car'(on a dealer showroom floor). This particular Saturday cleaning chore was handled by Vera herself. She was not about to entrust her reputation to the whims and vagaries of a small boy (myself) or any other male that happened to be hanging around the house (Uncle Roosevelt). According to Vera, males had no earthly idea of what a really clean bathroom looked like — even if a clean bathroom dropped from the heavens and crashed on their heads.
Now on one of those second or fourth Saturdays, she had Uncle Roosevelt drill a hole in the top of the bathroom’s medicine chest. Afterwards, she loaded the medicine cabinet with about a hundred marbles that I’d had won on the school’s playground. I had no idea of what she was up to, but it was a clever old trick designed to get ‘sweet revenge’ on one of the Sunday busybodies. on of her frenemies. The marbles would let her know who was snooping around — and also who was judging her. Sometime during dinner, when the suspected busybody from Gibraltar snooped and opened the medicine cabinet, there was a resultant loud and long clatter of marbles against the tile floor that you ‘…could hear all over the house’. The church sister, embarrassed, never came back to the dinner table or to Greater Gibraltar. The other part of the story that became family legend was that the snoop not only changed churches –but also changed religions!
Once, decades after the marbles caper, when Uncle Roosevelt finally(!) hit the number (472), Vera used the proceeds to remodel the bathroom and pay for my first two years at Georgia Tech. In remodeling the bath, she even installed one of those bidets like they use in France. Roosevelt loudly protested, insisting that not one of us Cantrell’s were French, that none of the folks from Greater Gibraltar were French and that he could never get used to using such ‘a damn fool contraption.’ “It ain’t manly, Vera,” he told her. But Vera installed the bidet anyway, saying it was the classy, European type of thing she always wanted. She threatened that if he didn’t let her do it, she’d install a coin operated toilet in the basement and make Roosevelt use that one. Lest he thought she was kidding during their brief disagreement, Vera — a strong-willed woman of many talents — magically produced a roll of quarters out of the thin ether and gave it to him to show she meant business. Uncle Roosevelt finally learned how to use get comfortable with the bidet years later about a year before he passed on, but if you ask me, the very idea of him using a bidet was the thing that ultimately killed the man. Of course, I wasn’t going to be the one to mention this notion to Aunt Vera.
In the airport’s atrium, suddenly, the big Delta board flashes that flight 2270 has arrived at Gate B12. My cousin, Dennis would be arriving at Baggage Claim soon.
As I walked toward Baggage Claim Area #2, I noticed the sisters, ‘Nellie and Allie’ were already there. For about three nanoseconds, I considered walking up, introducing myself and mentioning the ‘marbles in the medicine cabinet trick’ as a way of thwarting a prospective busybody future ‘aunt-in-law’. Then I thought better of it since absolutely nothing good could come of it… and besides the sisters would probably recoil and just consider me to be some crazy old coot who’d lost his own marbles.
Nevertheless, by the time I arrived at Baggage Claim and greeted ol’ Dennis, I had learned something: a sparkling bathroom is still universally coveted by women and maybe, if you are a man living with a female, it’s also one of the keys to living happily ever after. (Well, that along with money.) Truth was I was comforted a little by the fact that in a world of Facebook walls, text messaging, neck tattoos, Apple watches, and other new-fangled things I don’t pretend to fully understand, some small things including The Clean Restroom Gospel of Salvation has survived from the way I knew things to be when I was growing up…and before life and other things got complicated.