"Good taste is the death of art." Truman Capote

"Good taste is the death of art."  Truman Capote
Check in at The Cirrhosis Motel with your host, freelance literary loiterer and epicure, Dennis McBride

photo by John Hogl

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Toilet

I can’t recall when my toilet first started talking. I don’t remember hearing it say anything for the first few years but that is understandable as one wouldn’t normally be alert for that sort of occurrence. Anyway at some point I found my attention being suddenly drawn to a soft but clearly audible ‘swoosh- whoosh’ sound that was sort of halfway between a flush and a sigh. It usually began with a short muffled ‘whooshing’ sound that filled the house. At first I found myself listening for it on a level that was somewhere below awareness but as it continued my curiosity and interest became more focused. It was a second hand toilet which I thought could have something to do with it. I called a plumber to check for a leak or disconnected line, anything that could account for it but he couldn’t find a thing wrong. The odd thing was the sound itself. I gradually became convinced it was not without meaning. It was usually declarative, even slightly intentional, like wind going through a tunnel but occasionally it would be more questioning like wind before it finds a tunnel, kind of a searching sound. At first I entertained the thought of ghosts but I’d never heard of a toilet being haunted, but then I thought who’s really to say that there aren’t ghosts wandering around with low self esteem. Then one day, suddenly and rather unaccountably, I turned to the possibility that it could be something trying to make contact from a parallel universe. After all the toilet does sort of resemble a small wormhole and what makes us so complacently sure that contact from aliens will always come from a spaceship in the sky or some rhythmic mathematical logarithm of prime numbers on a government oscilloscope. Besides there was often a faint but frequently suggestive tone of hostility in the sound which if you thing about it would be perfectly understandable if someone was always flushing into your universe. But then if that was the case you would think the response would occur fairly frequently after flushing but it didn’t. Of course that doesn’t prove anything since for all we know the other universes could be as peppered with passive aggression as ours is. To be honest I didn’t really know that it was talking to me. It could have been a public announcement and I wasn’t able to figure out what it was trying to say or make any sense out of it. I mean it’s sort of ridiculous to expect that you could understand a toilet when most of us can’t even communicate with each other. It was just miracle enough for me that it talked. Anyway, as absurd as it seemed to me I couldn’t get the idea of a parallel universe out of my mind. It was some time after that before it finally occurred to me that if something was trying to make contact perhaps I could also try and communicate from my side, in fact it gradually began to seem to me that I as least had an obligation to try. I waited till my next day off and after breakfast I picked up the straight-back reading chair from my living room and set it a foot away from the toilet and, feeling a little self-conscious, sat down and then lifted the lid in that matter of fact air with which I would customarily lift the phone receiver to my ear. It seemed that I should begin in a formal manner and then I remembered about prime numbers. I decided to flush the toilet numerically in prime numbers so I began with one flush, then two, then three, and then five, followed by seven and nine and then I moved my chair a few inches closer to the white porcelain bowl and lowered my head so it was right over the opening and then projected loudly, “Hello, my name is Dennis. I speak to you in peace for all mankind.” I felt a sharp thrill surge through me, kind of like what Alexander Graham Bell probably felt when he first spoke into his new telephone wire, “Mary had a little lamb.” I waited a few minutes not really expecting any response while I started to think about what I should say next when I saw a tiny bubble rise from the bottom of the toilet. I tried to suppress a small irrational excitement inside. I realized that it didn’t prove anything scientifically even though the fact that it was only ‘one’ bubble made it a prime number bubble. I continued looking into the toilet somewhat expectantly but nothing further followed so I decided to increase my efforts. I lowered my head just inches above the bowl and said sharply and clearly, “I’m speaking to you from the planet Earth in the Milky Way Galaxy,” and then in an attempt to give a kind of cosmic latitude and longitude said, “We are 2.2 million light years from the Andromeda Galaxy which is our nearest neighbor galaxy. Ours is a blue green planet, the third from our Sun and one of nine that circle it.” I continued, “We are a fairly recent species and basically friendly in a sort of self interested way if not threatened or frightened and everything is going well.” I didn’t want to tell them how Anne Frank had said we were “basically good at heart” and then have them find out what happened to her or how we treat the homeless. This seemed like a time to put your best foot forward. I was ready to take a break when I saw the three incredible small bubbles rise up in quick succession from the bottom of the bowl. Three! they were prime number bubbles! I lost my balance on the chair. Christ! I couldn’t believe it. I just sat there dazed for some time letting it sink in. I watched for over an hour but didn’t see any more bubbles so I lowered the lid and closed transmission. The next morning I got up at nine o’clock feeling excited. I went to the toilet and lifted the lid and looked in. Nothing! Nevertheless I gave three flushes and then after a half an hours silence I decided to go shopping and do some errands. I returned at noon and opened the front door just in time to hear the last part of an ‘oosh’ sound. I rushed to the toilet and lifted the lid but nothing followed so I sat down next to it in my chair and watched diligently for about thirty minutes and when nothing happened I got up and fixed a small lunch and then distracted myself with some needed housework. It was while I was running the vacuum that I was suddenly struck with the realization that I had been gone on my errands exactly three hours. My earlier prime number flushes had been answered in three prime number hours! They had probably sent the prime number two hour transmission while I was gone. I unplugged the vacuum cleaner and ran back to the toilet and sat down with a tingling excitement in my stomach and chest. I didn’t know how I was going to contain the sharp edged excitement running through me for the remainder of the next three hours. There were still, of course, shallow pools of doubt circulating through my mind. I knew Stephen Hawking would jeeringly dismiss it. It all seemed too wildly improbable but then I thought so was last nights dreams and the Hippopotamus and Betty Lou Heltzel’s breasts on our second date. Besides a deeper sense told me I was close to pushing the laws of probability beyond chance. I knew something utterly remarkable was happening. An anxious anticipation took control of me. I had always been nagged by the sense that I was a part of something I could not see. A restless corner somewhere in my left hemisphere was always trying to make sense of tumors and ice cream sandwiches, new born kittens and missing children. It all seemed too thoughtlessly brutal and buoyantly playful to be merely thoughtlessly brutal and buoyantly playful. I felt on the edge of knowing something large and unimaginable. I occupied myself with cleaning till about five minutes before three went and sat down in my chair by the toilet. Three o’clock came and went without a sound or bubble. I told myself they didn’t have to be absolutely punctual what with time dilation and light speed being relative and all but as the silent minutes lengthened into twelve and then twenty my concern changed to a sharp disappointment and by four o’clock I settled into a quiet despair. I got up and went back to cleaning the kitchen feeling a little foolish and finally grateful that I had not told anyone about it yet. I was scouring the sink when a sudden sharp ‘whoosh’ filled the air. It startled me. I looked at the time. It was exactly five o’clock. I stood there a few minutes confused, uncertain what to make of it. Then it came to me like a revelation. I had miscounted in my excitement. They had already sent the proper transmission an noon. Five was the next prime number after three! I was struck with a wild joy. I dashed to the toilet and returned five flushes and then laid on the couch to let my amazement sink in. After a while I tried to sit down to dinner but the continuing churning excitement inside diminished my appetite. I kept thinking what if it happens at seven, what if it happens at seven! I had over an hour to wait and decided to calm myself by laying down on the couch. reading. The next thing to enter my awareness was a deep throated growling sound filling the air. It began in a low register bass note and then a treble and then flowed into a sharp loud ‘swoosh.’ I looked at the clock and felt the hair rising up on the back of my neck. It was seven o’clock! “Jesus Christ,” I yelled, “Holy Mary!” My heart was beating as fast as a hummingbird. I could hardly catch my breath. It was clear to me now that I had passed the laws of ‘probability’ and ‘chance’ and was dealing with an event of staggering significance. I didn’t know what to do. This now felt to big to keep to myself any longer. I had to talk to someone but I couldn’t think of anyone safe. My neighbors were deeply religious and I couldn’t take the chance of my toilet ending up as focal point for ‘rapture’. Then I thought of my friend from work, Merle Hadley but I remembered he was somewhat unstable and would probably call 911 as he frequently did when he got excited and I didn’t think that would be a suitable place for a news leak. I finally settled down a bit and eventually decided that it would be judicious to keep this to myself for the time being. Then a new dilemma presented itself to me. I felt the rather urgent need to pee but somehow it no longer seemed appropriate to use the toilet. It‘s odd how seeing something in a new light can force you to alter your habits. I tried to reason my way around it but it was no use. I had experienced a paradigm shift with my toilet and could no longer bring myself to use it for its former function. It was a considerable inconvenience but I knew I’d have to drive the three blocks to ‘Chucks’ all night Texaco. After I returned from ‘Chucks’ I was sitting at my desk writing some notes on the recent events when I began to experience a creeping uncertainty of fear. It gradually occurred to me I had no idea who or what was trying to contact me or where it would lead me and then I quickly recalled the horrible experience I’d had just answering the personal ads. Then my mind wandered to my physical safety. My God, I’d just been walking up to the toilet as thoughtlessly as a child to a swing. Suddenly my mind’s memory banks began swiftly searching through my fear files. I saw those hideous screeching long-limbed creatures that came to destroy us in H.G.Wells ‘War of The Worlds’ and I remembered Spock saying to Capt.Kirk, “We are being pulled into a zone of darkness by an unknown force.” I hadn’t even considered that I might be lowering my head into a porcelain event horizon and flirting with the deadly crushing ‘Singularity’ at the center of a wormhole. I had a moment of terror, imagining how many missing children on milk cartons might have been swallowed up like little Hansel and Gretal’s into dark toilet ovens. I made my way over to the couch and laid down and did some deep breathing exercises until my wild fears disappeared. I began counting down to eleven o’clock which I knew could erase all of doubts lingering shadows. A few minutes before eleven I sat down next to the toilet. My shirt was damp with sweat under the armpits and my pulse was racing. At 10:59 my eyes fixed on the second hand. I watched the steady sweep of its movement as it passed four, six, nine, ten, then eleven and then it hit the twelve as the astonishing double ‘swoosh, woosh’ rose up out of the perfect white hole. I sat there trembling in a state of nervous joy and ecstasy that was beyond excitement or amazement. It carried with it a kind of absolute knowledge that seemed to exist outside the mind, prior to the mind. Now I simply knew. I stared into the toilet with a mixture of reverence and awe, a kind of ‘grand unified theory’ feeling that Einstein must have felt. Then, finally collecting myself, I flushed the toilet eleven times to confirm having received transmission and said, “This is Dennis. I am going to bed now and will resume in the morning.” Then I added, “Good night.” I went upstairs to bed exhausted and fell quickly into a deep sleep. I was in the middle of an unsettling dream in which newspapers could speak and were blaring out the news of terrorists attacks and stock market fluctuations from eve newsstands when suddenly I woke up inside the dream to a voice that felt un-tethered to anything. It said,. “Your soul is still stubbing its spiritual toes on pebbles. However you are not entirely to blame. Just as there is no end to prime numbers there are infinite universes and yours and the one next to it are being used for reverse, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies." The voice paused and then continued, “Haven’t you ever wondered why perfection is always in plain sight and just out of reach ? Your greatest spiritual achievement are your balloons, which you use to sell cars. When you cease using balloons to sell things we will return.” I awoke instantly as though commanded back to consciousness. I knew there would be no more messages. I got up in the dark night and put on my bathrobe and went downstairs and sat by the toilet for a while in silence, an altar in an empty church. A deep formal quiet came over me. I got up and walked outside into the back yard and looked up at the immense stars above me.


Brandon said...

Brilliant! Throughout the story I kept thinking of the twilight zone. :)

Holly Mac said...

This is the first thing I ever heard you read and I remember thinking, "That guy is brilliant. Odd, but brilliant."
I still love it. Thanks so much for posting it.

mmmary said...

Not sure if this is Dennis' blog, or maybe you can contact Dennis? Its Mary Marg, we've been thinking about him for a long time ... we'd like to connect with him. I'll be in Portland this summer, would love to be able to see him while I'm there... missmaemac@gmail.com Pass it on if you can anyone? Appreciated. XO.