I never thought I’d work a job that was dictated by human shit. But things change. When you’re responsible for following men around and cleaning up after them it’s, at best, funny and humbling, and at worst, humiliating. At this remote fly-in fishing lodge in Northern Ontario, we housekeepers are not only modern-day chambermaids, but also plumbers, cleaning ladies, mother-figures, mock-wives, servants and, on the most difficult of days, whipping girls.
But mostly, we’re the Queens of Clean. Every day, the girls who serve the guests their heavy, rich meals of sticky ribs, oily flapjacks, and chocolate pudding are also responsible for tidying the rooms when the fishermen head out on the water. We housekeepers make the beds, sweep the floors in the cabins, refill the tissues and toilet paper, refold the towels, and replace the linens. We pick up garbage that’s been left on the floor, scoop pubic hairs out of the shower drains, and empty the slightly more palatable hair out of the sink traps. We do this with aplomb and a liquid efficiency. Yet somehow, when we have to clean the toilets, we always find ourselves staring down at the bowl and sighing. A weeklong trip filled with deep-fried shore lunches—beer-battered onion rings and fresh walleye fillets destroyed by a gallon of canola oil—does funny things to a man’s insides. Nine weeks of cleaning poop-covered toilets in the remoteness of the Canadian Shield wilderness is likely to do funny things to a woman, too.
The male employees—the dockhands and the occasional on-shore fishing guides—only really have to deal with the toilets if a bad clog has gotten worse and us girls don’t have the arm strength to manipulate the plunger. Because the lodge chores are so gendered, it’s typically the women who deal with the guests’ bodily functions on an intimate level: the shit stains on the laundry handed off to us without eye contact or even a mumbled “thank you,” the misplaced pieces of toilet paper that we have to scoop up off the floors, and the shit that finds its way onto and into things we never dreamed of before this job.
The bathhouse is the building where the majority of the guests go to relieve themselves, since there’s no running water in the cabins. The pricier motel portion of the lodge is the only place a guest can find flushing toilets. It’s also where we employees have our one private staff bathroom, a nook away from guests’ prying eyes and their never-ending demands.
The bathhouse is also the building that we housekeepers say a little prayer before entering despite there being only two toilets to deal with. One is in a little wooden stall: a large man can’t fit in there and shut the door, so the toilet often stays unused enough that we don’t wince when we kick the door open. But the second toilet is tucked back into a dark corner, in a much bigger stall that has its own window and a large supply of toilet paper. Comparatively, it’s a bathroom fit for a king, if said king is prone to take a shit on the floor of his castle. The unlucky housekeeper on bathroom duty that day gently swings the door open, knowing there’ll be something bad in there. There’s always something bad in there. It’s a feces lottery, and all of us pray—at night, our knees crusted with the dirt of our own cabin floors as we kneel in front of our beds—that our bathhouse day won’t be so bad that we have to snap our hands into the cheap latex gloves the lodge manager provides us for this exact reason.
But it always is that bad. Sometimes, there is a thick rime of shit crawling up on the toilet seat and lid like perverse lichen, spreading from the bowl with vicious tendrils. Sometimes, the men have missed the toilet completely—on purpose, or by accident, who the hell knows—and have left their shit-smeared wads of toilet paper on the floor behind the bowl. One time, there was a piece of poop stuck to the wall like a little projectile, as if one of the guests pulled his pants down, bent over, aimed carefully, and let it rip.
I’m always amazed at the mess. Why does getting away from home become synonymous with guests losing their sense of propriety? It’s as if the bad, angry part of the wilderness—the part that reminds people of their feral origins—leaches into every male psyche, turns every guest into some basic and primeval version of himself. Too lazy to throw the toilet paper directly into the toilet? No problem—chuck it on the floor for a girl to pick up. Too drunk to aim properly into the urinal? Piss on the floor and wait for the housekeepers to come and clean it. Left your pubic hairs all over the bed sheets? The girls will wash it. The girls will. The girls will. The girls always will, on hands and knees, eyes to the floor.
While I serve him another Bud Light, a guest from the United States tells me where Canadians and Americans differ most.
“You know, youse guys are different.”
“What’s different?” Sometimes when I least expect it, the guests come up with real gems: existential, philosophical, spiritual jags of genius that tumble out of them at inopportune times. Maybe this will be one of those moments.
“You Canucks say ‘shit’ a whole lot.”
Despite the eye-roll I give in response, his words stay with me, and I start to notice that when Canadian guests fill the camp, the air is an orchestra of “shit” in its different forms. And shit is such a good word to say when frustrated. Those who come from small towns drag it out into two, maybe three syllables if they’re especially talented. The word starts out susurrant and deceptive, and then ends in a plosive punch. Shee-iit. Of course, the female workers can’t swear around the guests. But the male dockhands and fishing guides get to use the word liberally, because when they do, it’s somehow hilarious. Some of our best guides are the filthiest-mouthed, like their right to swear is connected to the calluses on their middle fingers from feeling the tension of the fishing line. Testing the way the lures dance and scrape over the rubble at the bottom of the lake through the pads of their fingers. Shee-iit.
And we employees who came up north, timid and polite for our first few weeks, start to change after enough time cleaning up after lazy, middle-aged men (and the rare woman). We start to speak in a shit lexicon. The shift in vocabulary is slow and insidious—a dirty word here, a bathroom joke there—but it’s always hiding under our tongues and between our teeth, just waiting for the right time to take over our vocabulary until we can’t quite recognize our old selves anymore.
Laura comes running out of the staff bathroom, her braids flying behind her. Megan and I stare as she barrels toward us.
“What, man, what?”
“I clogged the staff toilet!”
“Your shit was that large?” I ask.
Laura punches me in the shoulder as Megan starts laughing. “No,” Laura says, “I accidentally flushed the wooden toilet paper roll!”
Our lives revolve around that toilet. It’s the only toilet in camp that is reserved only for the staff members, that guests don’t get to sully. The housekeepers share it in shifts, sprinting to the bathroom in the morning to try and get first dibs.
We are in trouble.
We run down to the shoreline where the dockhands are working, and we holler one-syllable names on our way down the pathway—Dave, Chris, Dave, Chris. The two of them are making homemade buoys out of empty bleach jugs. As soon as Meg, Laura, and I round the corner and come into sight of the shoreline, Dave rolls his eyes.
“What did you idiots do?”
Dave’s solution is to drain the toilet, take it off of its pipes, and lug it out onto the lawn in order to examine it. It’s a two-person job at most, but the five of us crowd around our little porcelain demi-god. It’s funny to see the thing that our lives revolve around stripped so bare, removed from its natural habitat.
Chris produces a wire hanger, pilfered from a guest room. He bends it and scrapes the dried shit out of the bowl and off of the pipes. While he’s doing that, Meg tries to clean the porcelain using Vim and a handful of paper towel, knowing that the task is insurmountable but trying anyway. Dave goes to extricate the roll from the pipe in the floor of the bathroom. The rest of us are doubled over, laughing. It’s an absurd combination—Chris cranking a mangled hanger, Meg yelping as she tries to scrub years-old scum. When we reattach the thing and it works again, we all cheer.
That night, to make Laura feel better—she’s now gotten the nickname “Flush”—Dave tells us a story over dinner that ends with a moral I’ll never forget. Never use lily pads to wipe your ass. Apparently, they’re too slippery. He tells us that he found this out the hard way, the same way he discovered that you should always bring napkins with you on a winter hunting trip, especially if you’ve hiked away from main camp. Especially if you’re alone in the middle of the snow, and a stomach upset strikes. And especially if you’re wearing skin-tight long johns meant to keep you as warm as possible.
“Wait, what?” I ask. “Why? What’s the issue here?”
“The shit bubbles up over the waistband of the long johns, Anna! Upset stomach! Jesus. Use your goddamn imagination.”
Someone else pipes up with a different piece of advice: You’re not a man until you’ve shit your pants twice, and gotten poison ivy on your ball-sack. Having never heard that particular maxim before, I start laughing so hard that I have to put my head down on the table. We’re all laughing. Somehow, the earlier mania of our plumbing chore has transferred to the now. A few of the girls are still serving supper, but with the sunset imminent and the guests finally leaving the dining room, more and more of us filter into the staff room, spoons of leftover cherry pie in our mouths, faces lit up with the late sun, with laughter. We have some happiness from the knowledge that for now, for today, the dirty work is done.
There’s a ritual at the lodge called “cake.” It’s a chore that’s better suited to some than others, and all of the veteran male workers make a day of seeing who of the new dockhands will run into the dense weft of the forest to puke their guts out. The main septic tank has to be emptied out once or twice a month, or else—what, exactly? The wooden doors that cover the tanks will explode in a geyser of human waste? All we know for sure is that nothing good will come of letting it fill up. This means two boys have to pull on their hardiest rubber boots and get the shit-barrow—the wheelbarrow designated only for cake—and some shovels. They have to unlatch the tank door and scoop the fermented shit out, shovelful by shovelful, dump it into the barrow, which is in turn dumped into a secret spot in the woods. The housekeepers never even learn where the cake spot is.
The first time I hear about this chore, I stop buttering my bread and take the slice of cheese out from between my teeth.
“You’re fucking kidding me, right?” I don’t know why I’m surprised by the disgusting nature of this particular task. Every other chore up here has been changed from the way it might be performed in the city. Every task becomes a little more demented. When the housekeepers are told to wash the exteriors of all of the old guest thermoses, we don’t just have to wash them, we have to use pure paint-thinner to try and scrub the tape glue off of them. When a dockhand is told to sit at the woodchopper and make kindling, he doesn’t just do it for an hour, he does it for an entire day, building an igloo of logs around him. By evening, we can’t even see him for the wall of wood.
“Just wait until they play the game,” one of the housekeepers says, grinning.
I don’t even want to ask, but she tells me anyway.
“Tampon or fungus. I guess there’s a fungus that grows in the tank that looks a lot like tampon strings.”
Human shit takes on an odd consistency when it’s been sitting in a tank for days. The boys tie kerchiefs around their mouths and put earplugs up their nostrils to stop gagging, but sometimes they still, in fact, do that. They make brave faces, especially when the housekeepers line up, standing back at a safe distance, and watch out of macabre fascination. The guys make a game—a point—of counting how many tampons have been flushed, and then berate the housekeepers for being so careless.
I never figure out why it’s called cake. I don’t ask. But the name makes perfect sense in that it doesn’t make sense. It’s an irreverent title for a task that fits in so well with the dire humanity of the fishing lodge. The unabashed modesty that we have all been reduced to, learning to clear away other people’s byproducts without so much as a grimace from us, or gratitude from them.
The dockhands and guides and housekeepers sit together for lunch. I hear about how all of the rookies measured up in the face of cake. We high-five one another, and shove pizza slices into our mouths with bleached hands as we hear about the monthly septic tampon-count—better than last month, not as good as the month before. And nobody is teased for having to shovel shit. Instead, our young men are lauded like heroes. Clapped on the shoulders and backs for their bravery. Now, they have their war stories. They, too, can join in the sharing, have new rules to live by: never use a lily pad to wipe. If you don’t get poop on your knuckles while shoveling shit out of a septic tank, you’re not doing it right. And never discount the shit, because it’s entirely possible to find the most brilliant slices of glee in the midst of it.
When we laugh about shit together, we sense that there is something beyond the mess. We’ve shucked our city selves. We’ve left our airs on the shoreline like shadfly moult or on the winding path to the lodge dump; in the imaginary space that exists between the girls’ bunks, all of our breathing syncing up like our periods, all of us drawing one another in and out in the thickest parts of the night.
And once I’ve shed all posture and cleanliness—once I learn to fold into another person without any self-consciousness, to laugh, open-bellied and with tears on my face, about shit, or shee-it, in all of its forms, liquids and solids, stains and accidents and smears and projectiles—I feel that there is nothing that keeps me from being the richest version I can be.
All illustrations by Vicki Nerino.