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The Tragedy of the 1-5-0To Michael Fowler's next piece

The Inflatable Restroom

"Clean, available restroom, ma'am," I told her. She was waiting in a short but awkward line to use a park toilet at the blues festival we were both attending. I had sized her up as not only at high tide bladderwise and irritated at the wait, but as the toter of a purseful of cash. "One dollar," I said, confident this was a price she'd pay without hesitation. She looked at me, and before she could ask "Where?" I said "Right here," and pressed the inflate button on the small handheld device I carried, that now with a hiss grew into a full-size restroom with all the amenities, flush potty and even sink, right there beside us. She hesitated, and I clinched the deal with "All private, all clean, one dollar." I held the door open for her inspection and looked the other way as she handed me the bill, then entered and shut the silent, plastic door. In a minute or two she emerged, gave a quick look around, didn't see me watching, that might be bad for business, and departed lighter and more comfortable. I went up to the restroom before anyone else got wise to it and tried to pop in for free, a definite uh-uh. Since I didn't have another customer waiting I hit the deflate tab, there was a Hsst, and the device was back in my hand, fully self-cleaned and ready for the next transaction.

I called myself Shit Happens, and did my business, as it were, at outdoor festivals, open-air concerts, chili and barbecue cook-offs, shoreline clambakes and the like, where oceans of beer and pop were consumed, along with smoking mountains of bowel-loosening grilled fare, but the number of bathrooms was sorely inadequate, particularly for the women, who as evolution dictates spend more time than the men in the little room. Today's blues festival was an annual event held at the same park in my hometown each year, with six bunker-like toilets for men, and the same number for women, but plenty of drink booths so that everyone in the crowd of 3000 got their kidneys lubed and the relief lines eventually became endless. The festival management never hired a portable toilet service, trying to cut costs, but that made the event, The River City Blues Fest, one of my most profitable. I could make a hundred each night of the three-day spree, thanks to pee and that solid, smellier castoff I named my business self after.

I know you're thinking that ain't much, and of course you're right. I was acutely conscious of my modest and low-class livelihood as a festival-following potty landlord, and hung my head in low self-esteem. Even though I employed what was perhaps one of the most technologically advanced personal waste disposal systems in the word, my job still smacked of the sewer. And what made it so much worse today was my running into an old college classmate, Pete, who not only sparkled with success but walked right up to stand in my face before I saw him coming, and screamed "Hey, how's it goin?" over The Red House Boys' version of "Red House Blues."

I know a girl who lives up on the hill
Said I know a girl who lives up on the hill
If she don't flush her sister will.

The Boys, a local outfit having their shot at the big time, pretty much skanked, adding nothing new to the great tradition that was the blues. Anyway, how did Pete and I recognize each other so easily? It couldn't be helped. Comrades in higher education, we were homeboys too. And although we didn't see each other except by accident any more, to completely lose sight of one another would have been damned difficult. I was even forewarned he would be here, seeing in the festival lineup that his band, The Blues Drillers, the All-Dentist Blues Band, were scheduled for the open stage late morning of the first day. In fact I had spotted him early on, wearing one of those party-colored stuffed hats three feet tall, and looking absolutely absurd, as perhaps only a blues-playing dentist could look, and had only myself to kick for not dodging him. He knew it was me, of course, by my buckteeth and naturally spiky blond hair, neither of which I had ever bothered to rein in. And then it had only been five years since we graduated River U. and neither of us had changed much, except he was a rich dentist and I was Shit Happens.

"What's up, man? You selling tickets for somethin'?" he persisted. And he gave me that drilling eye that bored through my shabby clothes to the poverty and decay underneath, no doubt remembering that, not so long ago, I was as promising as he, if my grades weren't quite as good, and now he'd seen me selling passes to a toilet, even if he didn't quite know every detail. Perhaps he'd heard too, over the last few years, just as I'd got wind of his limitless successes, of all my various career disasters, but I won't go into them here, it'd be too degrading. Before I could mutter some excuse he was dragged away by what I presumed was one of his fellow mojo dentists, and he called out as he left, "Got to get ready for our set. You're going to catch it, aren't you? We'll talk after."

In your wet dreams, I thought. I liked the blues, but damned if an amateur musical act of dental pros who performed as a sideline to their tooth occupations and could only command an open stage in the late morning before the real acts and real crowds turned up was my idea of a worthwhile listen. I turned away just in time to catch a sun-bonneted, mid-aged brunette who, with the glassy eye of the truly inebriated and still holding her 24-ounce "large" cup of brew, was scouting for the facilities. "Restroom this way, ma'am," I said. "All clean, all private, all the time. One dollar." As she spotted the suddenly considerable line ahead of her for the free plumbing and fished eagerly in her purse, I pressed the start button, Hsssh, and my establishment was erected. Taking her money, I overheard The Red House Boys still going at it with a Muddy Waters number.

Got my Drano workin'
Got my Drano workin'
But it just don't work on you.

The lady came out, I didn't see any more hot prospects, so I collapsed the facility, Pfffft, and wandered over to the stage area. Why not, I thought, see a bunch of dentists make holy fools of themselves? And up on the stage was Pete, holding a harmonica to his lips like God's own set of dental braces that glinted in the sun, already wailing their first tune, an instrumental. He blew slightly better than one who had never touched harp before. He swayed his body with the groove, the absurd hat that made him nine feet tall wagged on his head, and he was clearly having a ball. Oh, it's great to be young and a dentist, he must have been thinking. But the band was nowhere and the crowd, still forming and getting its bearings, wasn't too interested. Of a mind with me, the others awaited the name bands, and at noon had an hour or two to go before anyone even remotely famous turned up. They had come early only to grab good spots for their lawn chairs, but at least were already drinking beer and wine coolers. Wine coolers disgusted me so much that I almost didn't want to let anyone who'd been drinking them sully my stall. Had they no taste? I mean, give me a Cumberland Pale Ale.

As rare as it is for a man to use my convenience, I offered it to a member of a motorcycle "club" who, I could tell, was about to relieve himself in public. He wasn't hopping on one foot like a child or anything, but he was ransacking his fly with one hand while continuing to guzzle out of a long-neck bottle with the other. His and his partners' bikes were parked over by a large oak, and the lot of them in their leather and chains were drinking beer and getting comfy. "Hey, man. There are women and children around. Avoid legal hassles over public indecency, one dollar." I blew the place up, it was unisex anyway, and he stared at it with hard-boiled eyes. I practically had to push him in. I decided to forget the dollar as a public service. But one of his buds came up now and asked me if a guy with a tattooed bald head had just gone in. "Yeah," I said, "but it's one at a time." Cursing and saying he was going to kill the guy, he barged in after him. "Hey!" I said, but it was useless to say more. I could hear some muffled shouts from within and figured the two of them were probably tearing the place up. I should have deflated it, sending both off to another dimension, would have served them right. But they soon came out, both strangely calm and the bald one still coughing up vomit. Well then, maybe they had just heaved everywhere and hawked loogies together, as brother bikers do. They went back to their tree without a glance at me, two urban drovers not about to pay the slicker a dime.

I deflated so that all got put back in order and sanitized. "Hello," said Pete from up on stage, his voice amplified by a stack of rusty, tinny-looking speaker cabinets. At first I thought it couldn't be Pete, since I wasn't looking at him and didn't recognize the electrified voice. "We're the Blues Drillers, Dr. Pete, Dr. Mike, Dr. Kev, and Dr. Jim, the all-dentist blues band," the voice went on, and then of course there was no question. "If there's anything you want to hear, or if you just want your teeth cleaned or to make an appointment for a check-up, let us know. Anybody out there have a toothache?" But the crowd, what there was of it so far, still wasn't buying them much. A few smiled, but the introductory harmonica howler had garnered a "slow hand," the comedy was strictly groaners, and precious few of those in their lawn furniture sat riveted by what the Drillers were up to. Of course the star-spangled evening was still ahead, when Carey Bell, Catfish Keith and Big Joe Duskin, among other blue giants, came out. Then the stage area would swarm with blues devotees, the beer and wine coolers would flow like the Ganges, River of Life, and my business would get lively, lively. As I turned to leave, I heard Pete start a new song in a nondescript vocal style.

One kind favor I ask of you
Oh one kind favor I ask of you
Be sure that my stall is kept clean.

Mine is spotless, Pete, I silently answered him. I took up a position still near the permanent toilets but out of Pete's direct line of vision and where I didn't hear him so well. I found myself close to the Cajun onion ring concession stand, but the spicy smell disturbed me, so I moved a bit further on. A woman sat on some sunlit concrete steps that led up to a playground and began undoing the diaper of her infant child. "Right this way, changing table, one dollar," I said, hissing the device upright. She looked at me and made no reply, just went on with the revolting business of a diaper switch, now holding her nude infant son by his heel above the hot step as she positioned a clean rag beneath him. No sale. Have a nice day anyway. Come again if you please.

Now one approached me who, in my proximity at least, was that rarest of individuals, a flirtatious woman. Only once about every five years did a female come on to Shit Happens, and she was invariably somewhat older than me, this one way into the 30's, well nourished to a fault, and with a comfortable air of calm experience, as if it were only a joke to flirt anyway, so why not do it? "That what it looks like, dear?" she asked, patting me on the shoulder like a waitress. She pointed to the comfort zone, and I wondered how sloshed she was. She seemed sober enough, though clearly about to succumb to spontaneous human liquefaction. "Shit Happens, at your service," I replied. "All clean, all private, one dollar." She laughed at that, winked at me and went in, closing the door. Did that wink mean that I wasn't going to get paid? Or that I would get paid extra? Or that the flirting was over? She was gone a long time, during which I tried to concentrate on the music I could still hear, though it sounded too good for the delta dentists. Feeling that the DDS's were done and soon a man in a funny hat would be hunting me down, I got the panic blues.

Tryin' to love you woman but your seat's too big
Tryin' to love you woman but your seat's too big
It looks like a Texas oil rig.

"That was lovely," she said coming out. "Beautiful décor and a wonderful mirror. I look a fright, Shit."

"In that case the mirror distorts, madam," I said. "You are flawless." Part of the reason I could never connect with the ladies was my absurd formality. Then there was my appearance that suggested something that had floated too long in the river. She laughed at me, or at my remark that her matronliness didn't warrant, and began groping in a large purse.

"You did say a dollar, Mr. Happens?" Her hand came up holding two, and she held them out to me.

"How kind," I said, accepting them.

"My husband's deceased, and I'm here by myself," she now informed me. I thought, I'm flying down the road with no speed limit or traffic lights or orange barrels, and I looked her over. She had the kind of body I liked, rounded with plump legs and little feet. In my mind, her wrinkles melted away.

"A single lady who likes the blues. Most exceptional."

Next she held out her hand and fed me another sure-fire line: "I hurt my fingers with harsh cleaning agents in my kitchen." I took her hand, I was intended to, and gripped her palm in my left hand while with my right I softly caressed her fingers, looking for chemical burns. I saw none, but reveled in her smooth skin.

"You should be more careful," I said, releasing her after a good petting.

"Here's my number," she said, taking a post-it note from her purse and scratching on it with a pen. I thought, whoa, that was too fast. Some women, perhaps most, flirted out of habit and not from any real interest. When I called later, she would be busy doing something else. Still, I took her note. With another wink, she moved off.

As I watched her go, I saw Party Hat nearly upon me. Oh god, discovered! I ducked into my restroom, the easiest place to hide, and closed and locked the door. I knew all the ins and outs of the place, things my customers would take months or years to learn if they used the facility every day. Though muggy out, like a big, wet kiss all over, it was cool within, and I heard no crowd or music, only a distant liquid plop, as of an echoing cave drip. She hadn't turned the faucet off completely, I surmised. I walked though the soft light of the foyer and into the bathroom proper. Sure enough, I twisted the handle and the drip stopped. Then I became aware of a distant knocking sound, and knew the blue dentist had seen my move and was trying to attract attention. No doubt he'd wait around a while too, to be sure to catch up on old times and get my take on the band, his kind always did. That was fine, let him beat his knuckles till they needed surgery. If I had to, I could hit the hidden deflate switch inside and vanish. That wouldn't inconvenience me at all, and I could come back at whatever festival I wanted with a single Hsst. A hell of a contrivance, even if it was only for piss and that other stuff that happens.

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