C.W. Gusewelle is away this week. His regular column will return. In the meantime, here is one of his favorites, first published in 1999.
Her urgent whisper came to me through the fog of sleep. I wasn’t sure I’d heard right.
“Someone did what?” I mumbled.
“Someone just flushed the downstairs toilet.”
That was arresting news to receive at half past 3 o’clock in the morning — especially since we’re the only two people who live here. At least we think we are.
“Maybe it was a cat,” I said.
“Don’t be silly. Cats use litter boxes. Whoever heard of a cat flushing a toilet?”
“Well, what do you want me to do?”
“Check it out, that’s what! It might be a prowler.”
“Can’t it wait until morning?”
“No,” she said. “Now.”
I listened at the top of the stairs. There was no sound of furtive movement below. Then I went down to check out the doors and windows. Everything was closed and locked.
“No one’s gotten in, “ I reported.
“Well, I know what I heard. It did flush.”
It was a bafflement. The only explanation I could think of was that we had a secret lodger — someone who hid in the basement, or in the crawlspace under the back room, slipping out into the house at night to attend to sanitary needs.
It was an unsettling notion. I wondered how long he might have been with us. Only days? Or could it have been years? Then there was another flush. And this one I heard too.
“It’s times like these when homeowners need guns,” I said.
“That’s going a little overboard, isn’t it?”
“Not at all,” I told her. “A man’s house is his castle. He has a right to defend the throne.”
“Surely you wouldn’t shoot someone just for using the toilet,” she said.
“People have been shot for less.”
“Yes,” she said, “and I remember reading about a man who shot his mother-in-law in the garage at night because he said he thought she was a raccoon. It was a terrible mistake.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
This time I descended the stairs noisily, turning on lights as I went, hurling my empty bluff ahead of me: “I’m warning whoever’s there! I will plug the first man who moves!”
I looked in the hall closet, under tables. I opened all the kitchen cupboards on the chance an intruder might have folded himself inside. I even ventured down with a flashlight into the dungeon of a basement.
Again, there was no one.
“Then it must be the phantom flush, “ my wife said.
“I heard someone speak of it once. The thing goes off without any explanation. It’s one of life’s big mysteries.”
That sounded screwy, so the next morning I telephoned a plumbing contractor who confirmed there really was such a phenomenon. He said they get calls all the time about phantom flushes.
“It’s a leaky valve in the flush box, “ he told me. “Bring the mechanism in and we’ll fix or replace it.”
I thanked him and hung up. I am ungifted at plumbing and wouldn’t dream of taking our toilet apart. Zoning prohibits backyard privies, and it’s too far to walk to an all-night convenience store.
By amazing coincidence, that very day’s paper had a toilet story. It told about a restaurant patron in Indiana who got upset because the stool in the restroom flushed too slowly, so he whipped out his pistol and blew the fixture apart.
“They must have concealed carry in Indiana,” I said.
“I don’t know,” said my wife. “But I think it goes to show that toilets and guns don’t mix.”