Monday, November 14, 2011

"Out Home"

I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ place growing up. These particular grandparents were my father’s parents, and they were pretty cool. Every school vacation, they let me stay with them for several days. I grew up as the oldest of four boys, and my mother took in other people’s kids to babysit as well. It was a full house, and I think my grandparents sensed that it was probably in everyone’s best interest to get me the heck out of there for at least a while, or there would be blood.

Ours was a typical middle-class 1970s household, but my grandparents’ place was stuck in the 40s, which is when they moved into it. It didn’t strike me as odd though, since it had always been that way, as long as I could remember. Their house was kind of stuck in time. Black and white TV with no cable, no electricity directly run to the upstairs (though there was a very long extension cord that snaked up there), heated only by a wood stove…you get the picture.

Take the bathroom, for example. There was none. They had a two-holer out back. It wasn’t exactly an outhouse, per se, since it was attached to the house in a manner of speaking. You had to make your way through a rickety woodshed full of gigantic spiders and nasty stray cats to get to it. In the warm weather, it smelled absolutely horrible, and in the winter, you literally froze your ass off. And the thought of those gigantic spiders was never far from your mind (or other parts of your body), especially when a “number two” was unavoidable. And don’t even get me started about the flies.

The males of the family often made it a habit to do what bears are noted for doing in the woods whenever it was practical. My male cousins and I even went so far as to keep a package of toilet paper in a sealed plastic bag in the back seat of an old car way out behind the house, just in case of emergencies. During the winter, this was not a viable solution however. It was during those times that I developed an amazing ability to hold my breath for extended periods of time without passing out.

Most of the time however, we made sure our bathroom needs were met before we went out to visit my grandmother and grandfather. When I was visiting for several days, I tried to time my “number twos” to coincide with my grandfather’s daily trip into town, so I could use the facilities at the supermarket or hardware store.

Interesting side note: In the baby book my mother kept to mark the various milestones in my life, the first complete sentence she recorded me as saying was uttered in that two-holer on a winter’s day when I was just a toddler. I will not quote my first known full sentence directly, but the gist is that I stated to my mother that a certain sensitive portion of my anatomy was very cold. (Some might say I haven’t stopped complaining since.)

That two-holer was the only bathroom in that house for the first twenty-five years of my life. My grandfather reportedly shoveled out the gruesome contents two or three times per year, well into his 80s, though I never once witnessed it. And to this day, I do not know what he did with what the contents he shoveled out. It’s probably best not to think about it.
In spite of the bathroom situation, the times I spent visiting my grandparents as a child are among my fondest memories. There were endless things to discover “out home” as my father called it.

One of those things I discovered at my grandparents’ house I was reminded of just the other day.

I am a regular user of mouthwash. I typically get some “cool mint” or “orange citrus” flavor to cleanse my palette after brushing my teeth. On a whim, however, I grabbed some good old original flavor Listerine the last time I was at the store. It was probably on sale or something.

On the hot water heater next to the kitchen sink at my grandparents’ place there was always a large bottle of Listerine. It was always slightly mysterious to me. I could smell its sharp, alcohol odor from all the way across the room when my grandfather rinsed out his mouth with it and then spit it into the sink before he went to bed at night. Smells can be strong memory triggers, and whenever I smell the menthol of original flavor Listerine to this day, I think of my grandfather and those late nights just before bedtime.

I also think of something else.

One time, when I was about eight, my cousin Dennis from downstate was visiting at my grandparents’ house. He was two years old than me, and we always found it entertaining to put each other up to things.  On this occasion, while our family was all outside having a cookout, he told me that I ought to take a great big mouthful of Gramps’ Listerine. If I could hold it in my mouth for a full minute, he’d give me the five dollar bill he had in his pocket.

I never got an allowance as a kid. Turning down five bucks for something that seemed so easy was just not an option. My grandfather used this stuff every night. How bad could it be?

Dennis seemed awfully enthusiastic for me to do this.  I reached up and got the large glass bottle from the top of the hot water heater. It was nearly full. Dennis grinned an evil grin. In hindsight, I don’t know why I went through with it, given the warning signs I was getting.

The bottle was too heavy for me to hold in just one hand, so I took it over to the kitchen table to wrestle off the supposedly child-proof cap. At that moment, my cousin Lori, Dennis’ sister, came into the house to get something. She was the same age as me, and had quite a bit more common sense, as female children often do compared to their male counterparts. She also had ample experience in dealing with Dennis’ antics.

“What are you guys doing in here?” she asked.

“Nothing,” we both said in unison. It was the stock response for boys up to no good.

“Is he trying to make you try that stuff?” she asked me.

“Maybe,” I said hesitantly.

“Don’t do it! He’s probably up to something.”

I hesitated for a moment. I should have listened to my sensible cousin, but Dennis took charge of the situation.

“Get out of here!” he hissed at her.  She was wise enough not to get mixed up in the train wreck she could see coming, so she left, knowing that she had at least warned me.

“Don’t listen to her.” Dennis told me in a comforting tone.

I was a bit more hesitant than before, but I nonetheless went ahead and got the top off the Listerine.

The strong scent of the mouthwash filled my nose. I grasped the huge bottle with both hands and lifted it toward my mouth. Then I stopped and set the bottle down.

“Let me see the money again,” I demanded.

He pulled the five out of his jeans and set it on the sideboard.


I raised the bottle again. A little of the pungent stuff sloshed onto my face and even a little down my neck. I hurried so as not to spill more and wound up with a huge mouthful of Listerine.

To that point in my life, I had experienced sweet, sour, salty, and the various other common tastes, but nothing whatsoever prepared me for the tsunami of horrible that sloshed into my mouth with that swig of Listerine. It was like something out of a mad scientist’s lab. If Hell could be distilled in liquid form, it would taste like that. The thing I remember most is the BURN. It felt like it was melting the inside of my mouth. The fact that I had just eaten a bunch of barbecue flavored potato chips minutes before probably enhanced the pain. (Spicy stuff will do that if you use an alcohol-based mouthwash too soon after eating it. Try it!)

Dennis counted off the seconds while my eyes watered and a low whimper emanated from my mouth. I don’t think he got much past ten when I could take it no longer. I spewed the evil elixir out with as much force as I could, covering almost every surface around the kitchen sink. The faucets, my grandfather’s shaving mirror, various of my grandmother’s dishwashing things, the bar of soap in the pink dish, and even the ceramic frog with the scrubby thing in its mouth were all dripping with a mixture of mouthwash and my spit.

I grabbed a plastic cup and began slugging back water like my mouth was on fire, which is exactly what it felt like. Dennis, of course, thought it was all a big laugh and I probably would have agreed it it wasn't ME going through it. I was literally trying to drown my sorrows, and the worst part was, I didn't get the five dollars.  Fair was fair, after all.

We cleaned up the mess around the sink as best we could, though we didn’t even come close to getting all of it. The nasty odor of Listerine still lingered in the room. Just as we finished cleaning as best I could, my grandmother came in to get something from the kitchen and sensed that something was not right. The fact that my eyes were red and watering, that my shirt was drenched from gulping so much water so quickly and that I smelled strongly of menthol was probably a giveaway.

My grandmother knew something untoward was up, but being the kindly grandma she always was, she merely shooed us outside without asking any questions. To this day I think she knew what had happened. The smell of the Listerine hung too heavily in the air (and on me) not to. Fortunately, swimming down at the brook nearby was on the docket of activities for the afternoon, so any trace of Listerine on me was soon washed away. She never let on her suspicions, as far as I know.

After that day, I was convinced that my grandfather was more of a man than I could ever hope to be. Anyone who voluntarily subjected himself to something like Listerine on a nightly basis, in my opinion, was as tough as they come.

For nearly ten years after that, I avoided mouthwash entirely, until I was in college and it became imperative to use in order to hide the smell of other things I had been drinking, and gum just wouldn’t cut it.

It would be easy to fill post after post with stories of the things that happened at my grandparents' house during those visits as a kid. Who knows? Maybe in time I will.

1 comment:

  1. I pity people who have never had the joy of smelling an outhouse in the summer. They have missed so much.