The No-Shit Rule

Richard Holinger

You drive 300 miles. You turn off Wisconsin County C at the carved wooden sign where you chant the letters of the club’s name, then cheer, “YAY!” You shut off the air conditioning and lower the windows to inhale the pine woods. It’s late afternoon, too late for golfers, but leaving the forest for fairway, you slow down and check anyway because you don’t want to be hit by an errant golf ball. You pass the dining lodge and remember climbing onto the roof with a friend to drop a giant water balloon on a kid whom no one liked and now feel guilty, at least somewhat, that you did it because today it would be called bullying, but back then you just didn’t like the kid. You wind on a sand road through woods so familiar they could be a song from the 50s for which you know all the verses. Pat Boone. Elvis. The Everly Brothers. You pass over the culvert guiding the gurgling creek from the circular brown and rainbow trout pond through tall marsh greens and pink lady slippers into the mile-long sand-bottom lake. Then you’re parking before the front steps, railroad ties leading to a dirt path to three cement steps, a screeching screen door, and the nine-pane wooden door. Inside, you inhale the living room’s high-ceilinged and cross-beamed pinewood aroma, so strong it severs all thoughts of Chicago. You walk down the long hall to your old room with plastic curtains sporting trout creels, fly rods, and rainbow trout. You step onto the screened-in porch running the length of the cabin and stare out at the bank’s emerald moss, thin, sinewy birches you planted with your father and brothers sixty years ago, the blue, wind-rippled lake, the far bank’s virgin forest, and the wispy, white-clouded sky. The plank dock extends into water six feet deep where, if you dive outward, not downward, you can spear safely beneath the surface and breaststroke down into a cool, dark, infinite world where you are alone, removed from everyone, your past forgiven, your future perfect.

Later, unpacking, you wonder when your relatives will arrive. You wonder how it will go, this weekend vacation, this holiday weekend when ages will range from four to nearly eighty. You’re especially worried about your oldest brother and second wife, both born too early to be swayed by Woodstock, who glommed onto your parents’ ultra-conservative bent and never renounced it, never grew out of it—not when teenagers, not in college, not during Vietnam, not even while enduring Trump. They crave order; they detest mess. He prunes bushes and branches; she prunes Chardonnay. They both dress impeccably. Ten years ago, they introduced The List, a compendium of directives that must be adhered to before leaving the cabin to go back south: kayaks, sunfish, and canoe must be returned to the space under the porch in the same order, facing the same way, slanted at the same angle as found; the thermostat must be lowered to the minimal temperature; everything you brought or bought must be removed from the refrigerator; you must replace anything you broke. And lots, lots more.

You remember the one year you missed picking up one split, spent water balloon from a massive water fight, and your brother called to let you know he found it, the subtext clear that we hadn’t picked up well enough before leaving.

The No-Shit Rule is not part of The List. The No-Shit Rule exists on its own, does not need the oxygen of another’s directive. The No Shit Rule is a self-contained organism that feeds off the anxiety and stress of other organisms.

You learned about The No-Shit Rule years ago. About two or three days into your vacation, your oldest brother and second wife arrived. You and your family had been lackadaisical, to say the least, about clutter, clutter being just about anything taken from one place and put or used in another place, and then not returned or thrown away: pop cans, boats, wine glasses, wine bottles, wine openers, oars, fishing rods, paddles, wine stoppers, coolers, beer cans, shoes, tennis rackets, baseball and wide-brimmed hats, disks of various sorts, playing cards, binoculars, swimming suits, ping-pong paddles, towels, wine coasters, coasters, cheese-crumbly cheese plates, coffee mugs and cups, golf tees and balls and green-spotters, books and magazines, marshmallow forks, a graham cracker box, Hershey bar wrappings, wine baskets, wine corks, beer mugs and glasses, small nut bowls, large chip bowls, keys to the cars, blankets used for naps and not refolded, phones, laptops, a jigsaw puzzle, papers of many kinds used for many purposes, pens, pencils, markers, bags of many kinds used for many purposes, floss, prescription and OTC medicines, antacid relief bottles, and other things.

Your oldest brother and second wife came inside, and you all hugged and said how wonderful it was to see them. You helped bring in their luggage and the case of white wine. Before unpacking, your sister-in-law poured a large glass of Chardonnay, your brother a Diet Coke. You all gathered on the porch and chatted about the drive north, the traffic through Milwaukee, and how beautiful the lake looks. Then your sister-in-law said that she and your brother had decided that The No-shit Rule be observed. You asked what The No-Shit Rule was. She pointed to an object. You don’t remember what she pointed out, maybe your New Balance walking shoes.

“That’s shit,” she said. “Shit, that shouldn’t be there.”

“Ha-ha!” you all laughed, the idea funny in a creative way and funny in the way she put it.

“The cabin needs to be kept clean of shit,” she said.

“Ha-ha!” we all laughed again, the idea of cleaning up all our shit hysterical. The laughter, however, was tinged with fear and anger.

Someone might then have picked up the shoes. “Thank you,” my brother might have said in appreciation of this gesture that followed his wife’s ultimatum.

Now, you’re taking a short dip in the lake before dinner when your oldest brother’s car drives into view, swinging around the circle and parking in front of the cabin. You try to remember how much of your family’s shit awaits them, your unconscious Fuck You to The No-Shit Rule. Offhand, you recall fishing rods and smelly nets stacked outside the front door; half-eaten trail mix bowls left lounging on porch tables and lazy Susan; kitchen counters flooded with unwashed silverware, unstopped wine bottles, uncovered fruit, and opened cracker boxes, not in the brisker. And more. Lots, lots more.

This could get messy.

You sink down and, for as long as you can, hold your breath on the cold lake bottom where only the dimmest of sunrays filter down.


About the Author

Richard Holinger’s books include Kangaroo Rabbits and Galvanized Fences, a collection of humorous essays about surviving life in suburbia, and North of Crivitz, poetry focusing on the Upper Midwest. His poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in The Southern Review, Witness, Boulevard, and have garnered four Pushcart Prize nominations. Degrees include a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from The University of Illinois at Chicago. Holinger lives west of Chicago in what’s considered country. He has been a teacher, security guard, stock boy, busboy, workshop facilitator, and columnist.