The Telltale Toilet

by Daniel James*

in the spring of 2002, my younger brother, PAUL, got married in his adopted hometown of Reno, Nevada, and the whole family flew in to attend the wedding.

Let me tell you, Reno is hot in May. And after checking in to our hotel, a La Quinta Inn with a small swimming pool and free HBO, my wife and I discovered that our air conditioner wasn't working. We called the front desk, and a few minutes later a repairman arrived to investigate. He made a few calls on his two-way radio, then started poking around the electrical closet that housed the A/C. It only took a couple of minutes before he announced that he'd fixed the problem. We could feel the room beginning to cool before he even left.

Later that night, we returned to our now-cool room and went right to bed. Not that the temperature mattered by then. After the rehearsal dinner and an extended bout of merrymaking back at the hotel bar with Paul and our older brother, Ted, I probably would have slept soundly on a bed of nails straddling the equator.

The next morning, my wife mentioned that she thought she'd heard muffled voices during the night. Strange, I thought. The TV hadn't been on. Maybe our neighbors were up late? It was a new hotel, so the walls were undoubtedly wafer-thin.

*A pseudonym.

As we were getting dressed to go meet my older brother, Ted, and his family for breakfast, I started to hear things, too: distant, unidentifiable voices. Upon closer examination, we agreed that the sounds appeared to be coming from the electrical closet. Could this have something to do with the A/C problem? Or maybe voices carried through the hotel's system of ducts and vents? We had no idea, but the voices were getting louder. We could only make out the occasional word; mostly it just sounded like gibberish. We decided to call the front desk again, which posed an interesting dilemma: We could only guess how the hotel staff would react to the news that their guests were hearing voices.

The clerk was very understanding, thankfully, and said she'd send the repairman back up. While we were waiting for him, the electrical closet issued the following announcement, the first complete sentence we were able to fully understand: "I've got a stopped-up toilet in Room 206, please respond."

Before my wife and I could even process this bewildering development, there was a knock on the door. The repairman. He walked in, went directly to the electrical closet, and returned with a two-way radio in his hand.

"I've been looking for this thing since yesterday," he said. "Mystery solved." He apologized profusely for any inconvenience he had caused.

My wife and I were having a good laugh over all this when something dawned on me. Room 206?Isn't that Ted's room?

In an instant, an idea began to percolate in some sadistic corner of my mind. Ted is three years older than I, and when we were growing up, he would torment me constantly. Sure, there was occasional violence, but mostly it was psychological warfare. His longest-running form of torture happened at bedtime. We shared a room, and every night, just after lights-out, Ted would initiate this brief conversation:


"I might be coming over tonight."

Now, ninety-eight times out of a hundred, Ted would just close his eyes and go to sleep. But every once in a while he would silently pull back his covers, creep across the room, and pounce, nearly stopping my ten-year-old heart. That 2 percent chance was enough to keep my nerves on edge every single night.

And now it was payback time.

I walked across the hall and knocked on the door of Room 206. Ted opened it, and we exchanged pleasantries. Then I moved in for the kill. "Having a little bathroom problem, huh? You really have to be careful with these hotel toilets. They're not made for heavy-duty activity."

His reaction—or rather, nonreaction—was exactly what I'd hoped for. Ted was utterly dumbstruck, unable to even respond to what I'd just said.

"Yeah," I continued, "I was just down in the lobby getting a cup of coffee, and everyone behind the desk was talking about what a job the guy in 206 had done on his toilet. They said they'd never seen anything quite like it."

I could have milked this for the rest of the trip, but the look on his face led me to go easy on him. (Being the middle child, maybe I'm just not cut out for this kind of brotherly torment.) After about thirty seconds of letting this sink in, I explained the sequence of events surrounding the two-way radio, and when

I recounted the transmission regarding Room 206, a look of understanding and then embarrassment crossed his face.

And that's when I knew I had my revenge. That's when I realized that from this day forward (and for decades to come), this same look of embarrassment would cross his face each and every time anyone told the tale of the Telltale Toilet. It was an instant classic in the family archives, and I intended to tell it often.

Daniel James is a retired banker living in rural North Carolina. Now more than ever, he looks forward to Thanksgiving dinner at his brother Ted's house in Virginia.

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