The first thing I wanted to be was a cartographer, though I had no idea what a cartographer was. All I knew was that I loved maps.
Maybe it’s because I grew up in a world of constant movement. I had a desire to see what my world looked like from a God-like vantage from above.
My father had a huge world atlas I studied relentlessly. On road trips, I fancied myself as the navigator, master of the Rand McNally.
I used to draw maps to plot out the action in the Hardy Boy novels that were my drugs in those years.
At one point, while still in single digits, I initiated a project to create a hand-drawn globe using notetook paper from my school binder. I projected that when finished it would be about eight feet in circumference. I was pretty sure accomplishing this feat would land me on “The Huntley-Brinkley Report.”
Then I wanted to be an architect, again a result of our nomadic life in the military. We were assigned quarters that were often less than ideal — a set of conjoined quonset huts in England, and a repurposed duplex in Texas that rendered our family a perfectly symmetrical life.
And so I began ponder designing the perfect house for my parents for that day when my father would retire from the military. I occupied my hours in school (“Billy likes to daydream” was a frequent refrain on my report cards) sketching out this perfect house — U-shaped, with a pool at its center, a house incorporating much of the outside inside.
One of my motivations was to give my mother the sort of home she wanted. She and my father were perfect partners but my father was often at the hospital or doing a flyalong with a stick and rudder man. Mom was home, with us, and home was beige.
Beige, beige everywhere. It’s as if the military drained all color from our lives. We weren’t allowed to introduce other palettes to our walls. “I’m so sick of this color,” she said, more than once, in frustration.
I kept up my architectural drawings and imagined a house to rival the vivid splashes of “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” on NBC Sunday nights.
But then, in 1968, my father left the service after 20 years and went into private practice in Bloomington, Indiana. I was 13 and not yet a certified architect, so my parents found a house in the woods still under construction. My mother hired an interior decorator and worked with him to create a home that brought the colors of autumn inside.
Within a year, I was making yet another career change. At 14, I started working for my hometown newspaper and my path was set.
But in the back of my mind, I still had that desire to create — or re-create — a warm, loving environment.
After working for newspapers and magazines, I began my path through academia at large state universities which had rules, just like the military. Beige, beige everywhere and nor any drop to drink.
Decades of beige followed until I was hired at Boston University. After accepting the job, there was a lot of paperwork to do. I was startled, early in the summer of my move, to hear from Charles O’Connor, the man who managed the College of Communication building.
He sent me the links to pick out furniture for the office. Get a nice, comfy office chair, will ya? (I had not met Charles yet, but would come to treasure his friendship and his warm and rich Boston accent.) Ordering furniture for the new guy was not so unusual. But then he pointed me toward a color palette for my office. Pick a cullah, any cullah.
It was a private institution. They did what they wanted at Boston University and I was freed from the bonds of institutional beige.
So my dormant architectural and design genes were awakaned. Actually, those genes had passed on to Sarah, my eldest. She had graduated from the University of Florida’s School of Architecture and Design and was expert in this.
She went to the links and found a sleek, modern, non-threatening desk. I didn’t want a barrier or an aircraft carrier, but instead a desk that would sit off to the side, something that would not be a me-teacher you-student demilitarized zone. Then she picked out wooden, long-drawered file cabinets, dark mahogony like the desk. Then, a warmed-butter office chair.
I wanted to bring some of Florida with me. As a going-away gift, my friend the hypehenate (novelist-photographer-songwriter) Tom Corcoran gave me a print of an unpublished photograph of Hunter S Thompson, reclining on the beach in Key West. The miraculous water of the Keys spread through the background. I scanned the picture and sent it to Sarah. “Can you match this?”
She found the appropriate color in the palette Charles had sent. When I arrived at my Boston University office, the walls were the lush, welcoming shade of blue-green that matched the iridescent water of the Keys. Soon, the furniture arrived, the bookshelves were installed, and I had a comfortable environment in a great university in a magnificent American city.
But now, five years and one ass cancer later, I was spread out on the couch in this comfortable office, dealing with an ostomy bag that had burst — covering me, the couch and the carpet, in human waste. My waste.
Four feet away, on the other side of that door, my colleague Mary Chapman was carrying on the tranactions of the office, quietly informing those dropping by that “Bill needed to lie down,” nodding toward the uncharacteristically closed door.
I did need to lie down. I needed to go away. I needed to be somewhere else. I needed to fucking die.
I looked up at the picture on the wall. Could I will myself to that beach where Hunter once sat, smoking like a caterpiller on that sandy toadstool in the sun?
But I could not leave or transport or be beamed up. I had to deal with it. How was I going to get out of this? I flashed on Laurel and Hardy: This is another fine mess you’ve gotten yourself into.
I surveyed my haversack. What was in this bag of tricks that could help me?
First things first: I installed a new ostomy bag. Of course I carried extra ostomy bags, but I also carried several plastic kitchen garbage bags, to help me wrap up a used ostomy bag and seal it before throwing it into a waste can. (I don’t care if it’s someone’s job to empty trash, no one deserved to be subjected to something like this — a spent ostomy bag — in the course of their daily rounds.)
Fortunately, a swath of paper towels peeked from my kit bag, so I was able to wipe away the refuse on my stomach and thighs. I kicked off my shoes and rolled my pants from my legs, being careful to contain the mess. The pants would never again be wearable, so I stuffed them into one of my kitchen garbage bags and tied them up. I still had the mess on the floor and couch.
Remarkably, my boxer shorts were relatively unscathed and could be worn again after scrubbing them with paper towels. I tried to figure my way out of this.
Maybe I can call Nicole. Maybe she can deliver a new pair of pants to me.
I heard murmurs on the other side of the door. The phone burped out its digital tone. “Department of Journalism; this is Mary.” Quietly, Mary told the caller I wasn’t feeling well and was unavailable at the moment.
Life went on. Even if Nicole wasn’t busy — which was unlikely — I’m still looking at two or two and half hours before she could be here. That’s in public transit terms. If she drove she could be here sooner but she wouldn’t be able to park. Would I have to run out to the car to retrieve the trousers wearing only boxer shorts?
No matter how handsome these tartan boxers may be, I thought, they are not acceptable clothing for prime time.
No, that wouldn’t work.
I glanced down at the mess. I had to figure a way out of this.
One of the great things about Boston University is that it adjoins Fenway Park. In the five years I’d been there, Fenway had become my happy place. We had a sleeve of tickets that brought us 10 games a year, split between Tuesdays and Fridays. No matter what the day, of course, I’d go to the ballpark from work, a child in tow.
The boys divided up the games. Once or twice a year, Savannah wanted to go to a game. But no matter what the case, attending a Sox game was a logistical challenge.
I took the train from my little town to South Station, then switched to the Worcester line. At the second stop, I’d get off — with my office a block and a half one direction, Fenway Park a block and a half the other direction.
But the boys were too young to make such a transfer themselves. This meant that Nicole or one of our nannies would have to deliver the boys to me before the game.
And we had our routine. Between my office and Fenway was a little restaurant called Scoozi. I’d buy the boy du jour a delicious hamburger, fries and soda and buy dad some wings and three or four beers — all for the price of three beers inside the ballpark.
So on game days, I’d truck in my gear in my backpack, then switch from business-and-teaching clothes into full-on Dude clothing for the game — T-shirts, a faux Ted Williams jersey, or a Sox hoodie for those chilly spring nights. Often, I’d ask the boys to carry in a pair of jeans so I could do a quick pregame office wardrobe change, to be more comfortable at the ballark.
So now, in the office now befouled by human waste, I waddled over to those mahogony file drawers to see what I could find within.
Good God! I’d forgotten about these. Stuffed between file folders for History of Journalism and News Editing was a rolled up pair of slacks — taupe, a color I’d be tempting fate to wear, but which would allow me to at least leave the office. I’d adopted an entirely dark — black or navy blue — pants wardrobe in case there was an accident of some kind. An accident of this kind.
So taupe was not ideal. To borrow a phrase from my role model, Marcellus Wallace from Pulp Fiction, it was “pretty fuckin’ far from ideal.” But it’d have to do.
What’s this? In another drawer, I find a full roll of paper towels. This is a byproduct of being anal-retentive. (“We must’ve toilet trained you too soon,” Dad used to say). I polished my fine wood desk and file drawers obsessively. I also kept the tops of both pieces or furniture clear of clutter.
Let’s see … there’s furniture polish in here …. I root around some more.
What the fuck? Carpet cleaner?
This might be the moment when I most believed in the divine. I don’t recall ever bringing carpet cleaner to the office, but these file drawers were virgin when delivered. No previous occupant had left this here, so it had to be me. The carpet pre-dated me and, by the looks of it, had been keeping guard on Room 131 since the last century. But for some reason, this bottle of carpet cleaner, with its scrub brush attachment, was in the drawer.
The hand of God, no doubt.
I went to work on the carpet and couch (navy blue, thank God) with the paper towels, cleaning up what I could. Then I used up nearly the whole bottle of carpet cleaner, kneeling in my boxer shorts, diligently scrubbing.
Department of Journalism; this is Mary.
Just a few feet away.
It took an hour of hard work to rid my life of the horrible stains. I found my emergency spray cologne on my side table and did my best to cover up any lingering aroma. My olfactory senses are dminished, so this was a precautionary measure.
My shirt had been spared. My boxers were wearable.
The black slacks I’d worn to work were now useless. I wrapped them in one of the emergency garbage bags and buried them deep in my waste can. I also took the remains of the once-proud and bountiful roll of paper towels, sealed them inside a bag and buried that in the grave, alongside my pants.
I stood up, put on the dangerously taupe slacks, put my messenger bag’s long strap over my shoulder (hiding my crotch with the bag) and surveyed my surroundings.
You’d never know. A forensic examimer with an ultraviolet light might be able to figure out what happened here. But it’d take the whole cast of “CSI: Miami” to solve the case.
I wonder if Mary will notice I’m wearing different pants?
I pause, hand on the doorknob. Selected Writings of Thomas Paine is on the shelf. So many times I’ve thought of his writing — created for political context, but applicable to relationships and other painful moments in daily life:
We have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.
I open the door. “You know,” I say, “I think I need to go home early.”
Mary smiles, radiant. “Hope you feel better,” she says. I scoot past her, using the messenger bag to hide myself from the waist down.
On the train, holding my breath for 45 minutes. I think I can I think I can.
My hand on the door knob. Home. I thought I could I thought I could.
Nicole says nothing about the different pants. Probably doesn’t notice.
That’s it, I think. I survived that. If I can do that, I can do anything.
I figure I need to carry some emergency clothes to the office, just in case.
Maybe I can stuff some pants and underwear in one of those file drawers, just in case.
Not that something like that will ever happen again. I’ll just be more careful, that’s all. I should always lock myself in a stall in the faculty men’s room when I need to change a bag. That’s what I’ll do. I’ll just be more careful from now on. But I’ll carry in a new bottle of carpet cleaner, just in case.
Doesn’t hurt to be cautious. But hell, if I got through that, I feel pretty damn invincible. It’s not like something like that will ever happen again.
Again: divine intervention.
This is when God said ha.
Worse? I’ll give you worse, Buddy. Just stay tuned.