We Condense and Evaporate
Water moved Carl Schnell. He had always been fascinated by water in all its forms, by each sip of mineral water before bed—always only a sip since he had a bladder the size of a shriveled pea—by the sound of ice, undermarveled at miracle that it is, tumbling out of his icemaker, cubes and shavings clinking and melting in his glass; fascinated by the frost that obscured, in odd patterns, his windshield every winter. It pained him to scrape it off before his morning commute as if he were defacing a rare mosaic. This fascination (or, what his parents had called, obsession, a remark sparked by watching young curious Carl on rainy days, unlike other children who merely stomped through puddles or stayed inside huddled in front of the television, actually squat down in each puddle he found, burrowing into the wet and damp, probing with his fingers much like sailors recently rescued from sea supposedly bury their hands in the sand) first manifested in his childhood in multiple, minor ways: as an immense interest in the whirling water of a flushing toilet (his parents installed low-flow toilets to counter Carl’s frequent flushing but this only served to make him linger longer in the bathroom, exacerbating his already strained sibling relationships); an intense infatuation with creating his own popsicles with bizarre colors and flavors (a symptom of his hydromania which his siblings, on hot summer days, begrudgingly enjoyed the results of); a year-round urge to throw water balloons at whoever crossed his path—he kept a reserve supply of the grenade-printed balloons in his sock drawer; and water-gun fights hard-fought, and often won, well into adulthood. Thus, it was no surprise to anyone when he became a hydrologist, traveling the region collecting water samples and conducting tests. And it was no surprise, as he aged and tired of long drives on interstates and short, empty evenings in motels, that he took a position as a professor of hydrology and environmental science at his alma mater.
A pint of piss square in the center of his dining room table, however, was a surprise. It was pungent too. The entire first floor of his modest townhome reeked of it. His foyer, which usually smelled of lavender from the oil he kept on his side table, now stunk of piss like an alley behind a bar. And the source of it—a pint glass filled to the brim with piss—surprised him all the more. But Carl—Man of Science, empiricist, indefatigable inquirer, astute observer, lover of liquids—only paused for a moment, taking the urine as a challenge, a hypothesis to test instead of a violation that might infuriate or even frighten a less rational man.
It wasn’t his urine. Of this, he was sure (he had peed into various bottles and glasses while on the road, a matter of necessity, as the schedule demanded, but the aiming difficulties he experienced made him appreciate this pisser’s precision all the more). What better place to start an inquiry than from such firm footing? He knew it wasn’t his because he hadn’t been home, of course, but also because he peed sitting down (a resolution he’d made after several messy situations while on the road). It was simply a matter of good hygiene and, removing aim from the equation, less work. The invader, evidently, had no such problems since the area around the glass was neat and dry.
Not a stray drop.
Carl took photos of the glass in question in its original position, and took a sample of the fluid using his test tubes and dropper. He emptied the remaining urine in his toilet and put the glass in his dishwasher. It was an imperial pint and not his. This invader had brought his own. A nicety, it seemed to Carl, since none of his glasses then had contained a stranger’s piss—though Carl knew that we all, on a molecular level, were full to the brim with others’ blood and piss, with rain water that had fallen in ancient China and molecules that had perhaps once coursed through the veins of a whale—he knew that water is the common glue. Either way, there was no sense in throwing away such fine glassware.
Tomorrow, Carl thought, the inquiry begins. He would bring the sample to the university lab and have a colleague conduct some tests. He thought about calling the police but he hadn’t locked his door—he seldom did—and felt foolish admitting it to the authorities. And why relinquish such a fine mystery to the overworked professionals? Better to open his own investigation, he thought. He tried out several case names, indulging his penchant for poor puns: The Curious Case of the Pissing Prowler; the Number 1 Crime; the Peepee Puzzle.
The rest of the night was business as usual. He ate, read for a while—an excellent piece in National Geographic on exploring the underwater blue holes of Belize, exemplary diagram included—and showered. Once in bed, he turned on his sound machine and let the sounds of the rainforest, calm chirps from exotic birds coupled with the smooth rush of a nearby waterfall, pull him gently to sleep.
The urine belonged to one person. An evidently fit one. The odor was normal. His colleague, a former chemist who had worked in a lab that tested the urine of paroled teens, said it smelled healthily nutty. It was mostly clear, a good sign, and a light yellow, another good sign. Carl found it strangely comforting, knowing his criminal was of sound health. There was no evidence of infections, or diabetes, or potential kidney problems. He’d have been too sympathetic if his intruder had prostate troubles. Carl also wondered who this ruled out or how it might impact his list of suspects, which at the moment had one name on it—his neighbor, Ms. Miggles, who stilled resented him for pulling down the morning-glory vines that had climbed over their shared fence. However, he couldn’t imagine her having the patience, let alone agility and accuracy, in her advancing, unlimber years, to be able to deftly fill a pint glass. Plus, she was diabetic, which the tests would have shown. No, Ms. Miggles was innocent. Of this crime, at least. The investigation must continue.
A few weeks passed before the Pisser struck again. This is what Carl had taken to calling him, though he’d toyed with other nicknames, it seemed simplest. The Pisser knew Carl’s schedule. While Carl delivered lectures on hydrostatics (a subject Carl was particularly fluent in and the lecture, he felt, had gone swimmingly), the Pisser left another piss-filled pint, again on his dining table, dead center. The knots in the cherry had sold him on the table. He looked through the glass at one such knot. It was still pleasant despite the yellow-tinted lens.
The Pisser struck again during mid-terms. Carl happened to end class early that day since he’d spent so much time the following week meeting students. He drove home at his normal pace, along his normal route, but came home to the abnormal sense of a house only recently-vacated. The glass of piss was there, a sight becoming disturbingly normal, this time on the mantle and still warm. The backdoor was open. He must have just missed the Pisser in action. Not wanting a confrontation, Carl was relieved he’d missed him.
For the Pisser to know Carl’s schedule so well, Carl suspected he might be a student. So Carl set a trap. He had a colleague teach his class, keeping the substitution quiet so no current students could leak it. He waited behind Ms. Miggles’s well-manicured shrubs and kept watch until the Pisser appeared. Carl enjoyed the stakeout. It was fun, this new sort of observing. He also liked taking a step back from his life and world, watching his house as if it weren’t his. He thought about the maze of pipes and lines under him, the sprinkler system, the septic tank. A world of watery wonders below.
The Pisser appeared on the third night Carl skipped his class. A young, white man of slight build and nervous temperament. Carl watched him enter the house—Carl had refused to lock the doors, refused to change his habits over a few glasses of waste water—but didn’t see his face until he left fifteen minutes later. It was a former student of his. Of course it was. From last year’s chemistry class. He tried to remember his name. It was Will or Willy or Wayne. He remembered something then, something embarrassing or contentious that happened to, or was committed by, this Will-Willy-Wayne, but couldn’t remember what. Carl waited another thirty minutes then went inside. The glass was there. But instead of being set purposively somewhere in his house, it sat in the sink. Full, but reconciled to being emptied. Carl took the new location as a kindness. As a positive step in their relationship.
William Short, or Willy as he had preferred to be called, was listed in the student directory. A middling student, Carl observed, but not without some promise. Carl found his dorm room and decided to confront him. As much as he liked the mystery, he’d grown tired of smelling piss when he got home and had nowhere to store the steady influx of glasses.
Carl knocked on his door. Another student with a boyish face answered.
“Is this Willy Short’s room?”
“It’s our room.”
“And who are you?”
“His roommate. Albert.” Here, Albert crossed his arms. He still hadn’t asked Carl in.
“Hi Albert. My name is Carl Schnell. I’m a professor here. In the science department.”
Albert smiled. “You’re that professor, right?”
“The one that failed Willy after his pissed himself during his presentation. He’s a nervous guy. Very uncomfortable in front of people.”
Of course. Now he remembered. He had failed Mr. Short. But he couldn’t recall the incontinence. Maybe he’d missed it? Maybe he’d wanted to? Of course. He hadn’t wanted to remember.
“I don’t really recall.” He saw no reason to confirm Willy’s shame to anyone, even his roommate.
“Yeah, it’s you. I saw your picture. Anyway, Willy’s out. Want to wait for him?”
Carl thought about it, about the glasses popping up around his house and yet how nothing was moved or stolen or damaged, and he thought about how damp Willy’s pants must have been, how the students must have stared as Carl, oblivious, absorbed in the content of presentation, missed Mr. Short’s embarrassment and discomfort.
“No. I’ll come back.”
He turned to leave and noticed a movement at the end of the hall. It was Mr. Short. Carl called out to him, after him, but he took off down the hall. Without thinking, Carl pursued, chasing a much younger, spryer Mr. Short down three flights of stairs and losing him in the commons opposite the dorms. Disoriented, head throbbing, lungs hot and heaving, Carl sat in the grass and thought about Mr. Short’s shame and his own part in it.
Later that week, Carl noticed he’d picked up a shadow. It was Mr. Short. Attempting to be stealthy but still spotted easily enough slinking after Carl in parking lots and hallways, at the farmer’s market and once even waiting for him as he left his favorite bar. After the fourth day of being surveilled, Carl decided to head for the falls off campus, more of a trickle this time of year but still in grand surroundings: the gorge below, carved out over thousands of years, by glacier and river, the trees scraggly along it and the wind, biting and fierce with no leaves in the trees to slow it. Carl took his flask with him (full of apple brandy that he took with him to the movies, not liking sickly-sweet soda with his popcorn) and walked along the trail to the viewpoint overlooking the gorge. He wasn’t sure if Mr. Short had followed him. It was dusk and the woods, while crowded with long shadows, were quiet save for the wind whistling through them.
He began muttering to himself between slugs of brandy, gradually raising his voice to a shout:
“I’m sorry William. Willy. Mr. Short. I’m sorry I never said anything. I’m sorry you pissed yourself. No, I’m sorry I forced you to. I was focused on the research. The science. The data. I forgot about the people behind it. About you. How young you are. How things must matter to you. Your image. Your body. How people perceive you. It gets easier.”
He paused, took another swig, and listened to the wind rush over the gorge.
“It gets easier and harder. Your body gives out. Your friends die. Your family members die or forget you. You grow apart. You fall apart. Things happen, things don’t. Life moves on. You become old, out of touch. The world is no longer your world.”
He burped. It tasted like apples and acid. He went on:
“But there’s comfort too. Knowing it’s all connected. You, me, the trees, the air, our food. People you love and hate. People living and dead. The hydrologic cycle. It’s all vapor. We are. We condense and evaporate. Over and over. Think of Thales. Have you read Thales? We’re all piss in the pint glass that is the planet!” He turned to take in the woods behind him, dark now, dusk nearly over. Thales? The planet as a pint? I’ve had too much brandy, he thought, and took one last long look down into the gorge, only the edge now visible, and went back to his car by the light of his phone.
The next day, Carl went to class as usual, except for a slight hangover. He left his door unlocked, not fearing the Pisser now that he knew his identity. He still wasn’t sure if he should report him, to the police or the dean or his parents. Or not at all. A pint of piss on his table, while less sanitary than spilled milk, still wasn’t worth crying over.
That night, Carl went home and found himself greeted by another installment of piss. In the center of the table sat the pint glass, full and familiar. He guessed he’d been talking to himself the night before, or to the gorge. Or that Mr. Short didn’t care for Thales. He dumped the yellowish contents in the toilet and ran the glass through the dishwasher despite the machine being barely half full. It was wasteful but he liked the sound of it when he got home. The homey hum and whoosh of the water as it whirled around in the machine. The initial rush, the rinse and the final draining. The steam signaling the end. A routine that, though begun inauspiciously, had become a nightly treat. Something to look forward to. Something he’d grown accustomed to. A complete cycle contained in his kitchen and all he had to do was hit a button for it to begin again.
About the Author: Kent Kosack is a writer, composition instructor, and MFA candidate at the University of Pittsburgh. He is working on a novel and a collection of short stories.