WHEN I WAS in the eighth grade, my class went on a field trip to Washington. With my cronies Jason Greenberg and Terrence Upton Barnes III, I trudged patiently through the usual litany of D.C. cultural highlights: The Lincoln Memorial, the Air and Space Museum, Arlington. We were only mildly impressed. Nothing in the nation’s capital really captured our interest, until late in the afternoon, when we were wandering through the underground shopping mall at Crystal City.
There, in a wondrous emporium which sold magic tricks and practical jokes, we came to life. We danced through the aisles, blissfully examining whoopee cushions, joy buzzers, and dribble glasses of every conceivable variety.
It was suddenly clear that our mission was to select the perfect gag and spring it on our unsuspecting hotel roommates, Kevin and Avery. It had to be a guaranteed scream, yet surprising; it had to be disturbing, yet sophisticated. After much discussion, we settled on an elegant plan: We would buy twenty bags of fake excrement and put it all over the hotel room for our friends to discover.
Arriving at the checkout counter with our arms full of these little treasures, we were greeted by the cashier, a jovial Jamaican woman in a festive sundress. Eyeing our haul, she threw her head back and laughed. “Oh, no, no, no!” she said. “You do not want these. You want” — and here she reached under the counter and produced what looked like a can of aerosol spray — “Shit in a Can!”
That was the name of the product, in brilliant red letters. As the cashier explained, it functioned like a can of shaving cream, only its issue bore a striking visual resemblance to human feces. We thanked her profusely. It was all we could do not to hug and kiss her. Effervescent with excitement, we beat it back to the hotel and prepared for hilarity to ensue.
We sprayed it everywhere: in the toilet, on the toilet seat, on the towels, in the sink, all over the bathroom floor. All over the main floor. All over the beds, the pillows, the television, the telephone. It was on the curtains, the mini-bar, the doorknobs. It was on the night table, the window sill, the lamp. A whimsical coil decorated the Gideon Bible. When we had finally emptied the can, the room looked like it had just been vacated by a support group for the intestinally explosive. The Shit in a Can product was completely odorless, but its appearance was so convincing that we found ourselves covering our faces and gagging.
We were also hysterical with laughter, and growing more so, because we were trying so hard to be quiet. There was nothing to do but lie in wait. Jason Greenberg and Terrence Upton Barnes III and I hid in the closet, biting our fists to keep from laughing, eagerly awaiting the arrival of Kevin and Avery. We whispered our guesses about how they would react and what they would do.
Finally, we heard a key in the door. We braced ourselves. We heard the door close. We heard an audible gasp, then careful footsteps. Silence, for much too long.
And then, a horrified female voice which we did not recognize: “What—the hell—did these boys—do—in here?”
It was the maid.
Mirth quickly gave way to horror as we sat in the closet trying not to breathe. What, exactly, does one do in this situation, when it comes up? Should we emerge from the closet, explain, and apologize? Should we pretend to be dead? Should we actually die?
While we were wondering, we heard the maid make a phone call. This could not have been easy, because in order to pick up the receiver she would have had to remove a great deal of objectionable matter. Then: “Yeah. We got a big mess in 303. I’m talkin’ about a big mess. I’m gonna need two people and bio-hazard kits.” Click. Then, under her breath: “I don’t get paid enough for this shit.” And after another series of very careful footsteps, she slammed the door and was gone.
With instant sobriety, Jason Greenberg and Terrence Upton Barnes III and I began to talk strategy. We were scared now. We had obviously gone much too far. Would we be suspended from school? Charged with a crime? This is Washington — we’ll be turned over to the feds! We’ll never see the light of day again! “What are you in for?” some ferocious convict will ask us in the slammer. “Shit in a Can,” we’ll say.
These fears gave way to a more immediate concern when Terrence Upton Barnes III told us that he had to go to the bathroom.
“Well,” I said, “you’re in luck. This is a rare opportunity. You can pretty much go anywhere. What’s the difference? Who cares anymore?”
But Terrence Upton Barnes III refused to entertain this suggestion. He was determined to do things properly. So he left the closet and made his way toward the bathroom. With the closet door now open, Jason Greenberg and I peered out into the hotel room and surveyed the sorrowful battlefield, trying to imagine what it looked like to a hotel maid making her usual rounds.
Terrence Upton Barnes III was having a difficult time. For one thing, there was no way to close the bathroom door, because that would have ground the stuff into the carpet. Secondly, the toilet seat was impossible to sit on. But Terrence Upton Barnes III was in a state of physical need, so he squatted and hovered and did his best under the circumstances.
And it was at that moment — room soiled beyond imagination, Jason Greenberg and I with our heads poking out of the closet, and Terrence Upton Barnes III with his jeans around his knees, holding himself over the bowl — that our roommates Kevin and Avery walked into the room.