From the outside looking in, there was nothing unusual about Mr. and Mrs. Wand other than a stiff formality to how they handled affairs, which was pretty unusual. For example the couple only referred to each other as Mr. and Mrs. Wand, never by their first names and especially never by playful pet names. Nothing was playful about Mr. and Mrs. Wand. Though neither called either “dear” or “hon,” for it made the pair uncomfortable, there was no denying the seriousness of their love.
Mr. Wand was like a pink flamingo. Not that he was a bird or enjoyed standing for long periods of time on one leg, he was like a pink flamingo in that he wore his feelings on the outside, quite literally, though not exactly like a pink flamingo. A pink flamingo is pink because of what it eats and Mr. Wand was Mr. Wand because of what he wore. The more he wore, the more comfortable he was. His normal attire being a tailored three-piece suit of a dark material and detailed but unfussy design. That was his base, the foundation on which he built by adding other garments. He felt better when an overcoat covered his natty suit and tie, and he was nearly ecstatic with a wool scarf wrapped around his neck and his small head topped by a large-brimmed fedora.
The neatly trimmed mustache over Mr. Wand’s upper lip quivered in anticipation of a smile when the clothing layered in bulk over his tremblingly excited body. That smile, however, never arrived.
Around the house, Mr. Wand would not roll up his shirtsleeves. Etiquette demanded a more casual outfit and he reluctantly submitted to wearing a smoking jacket, though he never smoked. He refused, and would fight to the death for his hand-given rights, to remove his gloves. There was something obscene about a man’s naked hands or feet or any extremity open so brazenly to the world. But when seated besides Mrs. Wand in the family’s cushioned loveseat, he loved to hold her rudely uncovered hand in his covered one, a public expression of their affection he tolerated. It made him feel dirty but good in a way not unlike just before stepping into a hot bath.
Mrs. Wand had no need for gloves. She enjoyed her callused palms too much, especially when she rubbed them together as if to start a fire from dry kindling. Sometimes her hands got hot, but they never sparked or even smoldered.
Her hands were hard from working constantly around the house, which was odd as the Wand home was a mess. The house wasn’t dirty, as in covered by dirt and grime and the other nasty things associated with the unclean, it was just a mess—a cluttered and dark, but orderly mess. Mr. and Mrs. Wand archived everything, from restaurant menus and old bills to the bones from anniversary, birthday and other celebratory dinners that they were too nostalgic to discard.
The house was an obstacle course of memories, which made the Wands feel as if they were living inside a prison of personal recollections, overflowing with the manifestation of their love.
The Wands were in love, though they showed it in uncommon ways. Their passion was like dark chocolate, so dark that nothing could escape its grave gravity, but from that unsweetened mass they chiseled the sweet reward of a son, a young boy that they named Nickelan.
Nickelan Wand was neither a natty dresser like his father nor an obsessive organizer like his mom. He was just Nickelan and he wasn’t quite sure what that meant yet.
The one thing Nickelan knew, though, was that he didn’t like to bathe. He didn’t like to brush his teeth or wash his face, clean beneath his fingernails or behind his ears. His hair was long and greasy and his body emitted a sour odor that made him popular with flies but few others. He would never change his clothes, but they mysteriously disappeared each night as he slept and a new, clean outfit was laid out in waiting for him when he awoke the next morning.
It wasn’t that Nickelan was oblivious to his filth in the way of a barnyard animal. He was conscious of his poor hygiene, but there was nothing he could do about it. To be clean meant to use the bathroom, which in the maze of moldy keepsakes was the pulsating brain of his house, and like a brain it was dense, twisted and gross with information.
Both Mr. and Mrs. Wand loved to read. They had a spacious library. Its tall windows took in the bright light and its full shelves overflowed with books. There were comfortable chairs with comfortable throw pillows and comfortable ottomans on which to rest tired feet for marathon reading sessions. But Mr. and Mrs. Wand preferred the bathroom, where they read on the hard toilet seat.
When Nickelan first woke each morning he had to pee so badly, but was barred from the one bathroom in their small home. Mr. and Mrs. Wand liked to read the morning paper in the bathroom. Nickelan had to relieve himself in the backyard. It was not only embarrassing, but dangerous as the neighbor’s growling dog threatened to jump the fence separating the two yards.
By the time Nickelan came home from school his bladder was building to burst. The bathroom door was again closed, locked, with his mother inside reading the various periodicals on library science they subscribed to. And the first thing his father did upon coming home from work was to take the day’s mail and retreat to the bathroom.
In the bathroom there was a toilet, of course, and a sink with a medicine cabinet above it. A large and deep claw-foot tub sat menacingly behind a shower curtain, and the tile floor was covered in a patchwork of small area rugs. But there was also a roll-top desk with important papers in organized piles. Journals, publications, quarterlies, catalogues, circulars, flyers and torn-open envelopes were strewn over various nightstands, coffee tables and magazine racks, as well as every available surface left in the bathroom. They stuck wet and discolored to the edge of the sink, the tub and even the toilet seat. That was not so bad, as it made going to the bathroom on a cold winter’s morning warm and soft on your naked behind. That is, if Nickelan could get to the bathroom.
Nickelan’s parents wouldn’t share the bathroom if they were in it, and they were always in it, which meant that Nickalen had to be inventive. He befriended his neighbors and some even gave him copies of their house keys so Nickelan could use their facilities when nature called.
The town’s main street was only down the block and Nickelan knew every public restroom there, from the one behind the heavy metal door at the gas station to the fancy hotel with the lobby washroom that had an attendant in a red-velvet jacket that his father would love. The attendant handed patrons of the public bathroom a cloth towel after washing their hands. But none of those establishments had a bathtub.
That was fine. It was one thing to answer when nature called and quite another to sink into the watery depths of a bathtub. It was unnatural, grotesque even, to risk drowning to get clean when you started getting dirty again immediately after toweling dry. Nickelan knew it was crazy to avoid his bath, but crazy is beyond a boy’s power to control, that’s why it’s called crazy, and there was nothing Nickelan could do about it.
Nickelan figured he must have collected at least half his body weight in dirt over the years since his parents last bathed him. There was so much dirt on his body that he could write messages on his skin with his fingertips. That was helpful, but he could just as easily carry a notebook.
It should have made Nickelan happy that fateful day when he came home from school and, clearing the dust that had settled over his eyes, saw that the bathroom door was open. But it didn’t.
On either side of the bathroom door stood his parents. Mr. Wand was wearing his usual suit and tie, but all Nickelan could see of it was the white collar of his shirt and the gray cuff of his pants leg. The rest was hidden under a tightly buttoned rain slicker. Mr. Wand’s hat was covered in a transparent plastic wrap. Mrs. Wand wore her apron. In one hand she held a scrubbing brush and in the other a bucket with sudsy water.
“It’s time for your bath, Nickelan,” said his father as if bathing was a nightly occurrence. Nickelan hadn’t bathed in months. He kept track of the time by writing the number of days on his dirty belly. Just above his belly button was scrawled the number three hundred and sixty-five.
“Don’t you need to get some work done?” Nickelan asked his father. He pointed to the mess of loose papers collecting on the sink.
“That can wait,” replied his father, looking back anxiously at the paperwork. “I cannot stand to see you like this a moment longer. I have been lenient, even permissive, catering to your unnatural fear of water. I sought medical advice fearing you’d been stricken by a case of rabies. But you are healthy and certainly fit enough, Nickelan, to submerge yourself momentarily in the tub.”
The tub. Nickelan stared beyond where his father stood. There it was, the tub, with its great open mouth and claw feet so polished that when the sun reflected off of them it blinded Nickelan. He heard a gurgling noise, the sound of water filling the dreaded tub. Steam clouded the room.
“I am not going into that!” Nickelan pointed at the tub and for a moment thought it took a step towards him, even growled like the neighbor’s dog.
Running into his room Nickelan slammed the door behind him, but it didn’t shut. Nickelan looked down at a brown wingtip shoe wedged into the jam keeping the door open. He followed the leg upwards, over the shiny expanse of raincoat and met the darkly furious eyes of his father. Before Nickelan could state his case, protest or run under the bed, Mr. Wand’s arm shot through the gap in the doorway and took strong hold of Nickelan.
Mr. Wand lifted Nickelan up easily from the floor. He held him at arm’s length to avoid the wild punching and kicking of Nickelan’s arms and legs. Nickelan was in a panic, blinded by fear, as Mr. Wand carried him like a dirty diaper to the bathroom and threw him in.
The door slammed shut behind Nickelan with a big bang that reverberated throughout the small room. The walls quivered from the violence of the act. Just as the air stilled, Mr. Wand’s voice boomed from the other side of the door, “Nickelan! You will bathe yourself clean! And I expect you to do so promptly. Your mother and I have yet to read the evening paper and desire some quiet time in the bathroom.”
Mr. Wand’s voice was almost calm by the time he finished his speech. All Nickelan could hear was the sound of his leather soles tapping off into the house and the splash of running water falling from the faucet and filling the tub at his side.
Nickelan turned to face the enemy. The tub. Its porcelain shell was so black that light appeared unable to escape its dark surface, sucked into an evil vortex, never seen again. Inside the tub was white and hot, whispering to Nickelan with steamy breath to come closer. Carefully, Nickelan turned the handle and stopped the flow of water. He stared down into the basin and saw the drain like a gaping mouth. Lost body hair floated from its grill and waved seductively in the hot water as if trying to lure Nickelan to its hazardous depths.
Nickelan shook his head, breaking the tub’s spell, and pushed himself backwards into a mountain of newsweeklies that tumbled over him. He sat on top of the magazines afraid to get up. There was nowhere to go. He could hear his parents outside the bathroom door. The mounting heat in the bathroom made tub shimmer and shimmy. It seemed to move closer to him. There was no escape.
Gathering his strength, Nickelan stood on his feet and bravely approached the tub. He looked into it again and studied the brown ring that stained the drain like a bruise. Feeling as if a condemned man, Nickelan knocked his shoes from his feet and peeled his socks off, accepting his terrible fate.
Nickelan’s socks were hard and he stuck them into the clear water of the tub like a paddle, but there was no sailing away from this terrible ordeal. Today he must bathe.
Or must he? The socks discolored the water, but clearly offered him a solution to his dilemma.
Nickelan quickly undressed and threw his dirty clothes onto the closed cover of the laundry basket, causing the reading lamp placed there to teeter. Nickelan paid it no mind. He was on a mission.
He dipped the soles of his feet onto the surface of the water. It was hot, too hot for any human being to endure. Nickelan pulled it out and stomped a wet footprint onto the bathroom rug. Then he placed his other foot gingerly into the water and stomped it onto the rug. He continued this until the entire rug was wet with his footprints as if he had just come out of the tub newly cleaned.
Wrapping a towel around his naked body, Nickelan emerged triumphantly from the bathroom. Then, seeing his parent’s surprise, he slumped over and acted defeated. Nickelan moaned as if hurt as he passed them.
“You’ll live, Nickelan,” Mrs. Wand said, reaching out a motherly hand to pat his apparently wet head. Nickelan darted around his mother, pretending to wail in sorrow, and escaped to his room, where he slammed the door successfully this time.