“Stick Eastlake Cottage Style” was definitely a misrepresentation of the house as well as a potential marketing blunder. Mr. Carton had been friendly to the previous owners, the Ryans, and had visited the house on more than one occasion. He knew it had at least four, maybe five bedrooms and at least two and a half baths. It was not a cottage by any standards, as if people were looking for cottages. They were not. If it was a blunder, it was inconsequential. The house fetched a stratospheric price, paid in cash by a Twitter mucketymuck who, despite the price tag, decided it was alarmingly small and merited complete gutting. How can one live in a house without a four-car garage, a gym, and a solarium?
Caterpillars and trucks and cement mixers, most of which exceeded size and weight restrictions groaned up and down the steep hill, day after day after day. A mudslide put its reptile tongue into the street. A crane tipped onto a well-meaning Subaru. Oil shimmered on the asphalt in rainbow colors. The only thing that gained consensus on the block was the Twitter guy was a twit. That was Mr. Carton’s witticism.
Neither Mr. Carton nor his wife Charlene were willing to scuttle their resentments—four years is a long incubation—when one day they received in the mail an elegant invitation to a housewarming. The house was finished at last. The invitation made a stab at being ingratiating, acknowledging the disruptions of construction, adding a breezy plea for forgiveness. It came across as flippant. Charlene said at once she would not set foot in that monstrosity, but Mr. Carton hedged. It seemed a moral dereliction not to get some compensation for their inconvenience. A little was better than none. The spread would be extravagant, the wines premium. Mr. Carton was not one to get snooty when it came to a buffet.
He was, naturally, curious about the house too. What took four years? How did these young masters of the universe spend their mega-bucks?
Once inside the house it took about five minutes to come to a conclusion. Everything in the house was wired. The silvery blinds were opened and closed by sensors. There was news from electronic messengers in nearly every surface. Mr. Carton had been reading about houses like this, that it was the wave of the future whether he wanted a house like that or not. He was sure he didn’t.
The party was mostly happening on the patio. The mucketymuck—Mr. Carton assumed it was him—was lording it over a grill so hefty it had tractor wheels. Some of Mr. Carton’s neighbors, several of whom had been the most vituperative about the remodel, were basking in the charcoal glow of Mega Bucks. Mr. Carton didn’t bother to present himself.
The garden surrounding the ballroom was surreal in its colorfulness, as if someone had just bought out Berkeley Hort. On a long table in the ballroom festooned with floral arrangements was the spread, grand as it better be. Mr. Carton could barely pull himself away from the cheese plate. Plates.
All the doors in the house were open and nobody seemed to mind Mr. Carton snooping around. The glass side table he put his empty plate on had embedded wires. What marvels did the table accomplish? Mr. Carton tried to access his deepest desires regarding how a table might behave when being an ordinary table was too lame a destiny.
Mr. Carton’s curiosity was not yet sated, though his stomach was getting there. Alone inside the edifice he climbed the white-carpeted staircase slightly worried he might be tracking in something and that as a consequence the house would have to be gutted and begun anew. Who in their right minds would put in white carpets? At the top floor, the Variance that had been a flashpoint of neighborhood anger, he discovered what he surmised would become the master bedroom—the mattress on the bed was bare, the closets empty. Windows commanded the cinematic sweep of the Golden Gate. Despite his best intentions, Mr. Carton fell face first into a swamp of awe and envy, both of which he felt compelled to purge himself of immediately.
Wine did wonders for loosening the rust on Mr. Carton’s decision-making machinery. He was on his third glass. He decided on the basic method of purgation, at once symbolic and literal if he wanted to think in those terms.
In the adjacent bathroom—the word didn’t seem quite adequate for this chamber–experimentation succeed in getting the lights to come on and settle into a merciless glare. Which of these pads controlled the dimmer? He tried one and the door slipped sibilantly shut. Mr. Carton made a mental note of that switch. What other surprises awaited? He undid his belt and lowered his trousers, but before he sat he took a second look to make sure he had the correct destination. It may have been the apogee of some lunatic Scandinavian’s design career but it was still by any measure a toilet bowl. As he sat down it immediately flushed, which seemed disconcertingly like an insult he could take personally. He moved his arm and was amused when a decorous length of toilet paper unspooled for him. He repeated the gesture twice more. He couldn’t wait to tell Charlene about this.
The lights went out. Mr. Carton wiped himself and stood , pulling up his trousers. It was very dark. There was no flushing sound. Eventually he noticed a thumb-size light over what he guessed was the lavatory, and took small steps toward it. He put his finger onto it hoping that it do something but nothing happened. He felt his way back to the door switch. Where he thought it was. He pressed his palms up and down the wall. He couldn’t tell if he was hitting the switch or porcelain tiles.
The electricity had gone out. A fuse maybe. Surely a house like this, in thrall to its gadgets, would have a back-up source of power. He knew that if were patient, his patience would be rewarded.
Mr. Carton could not hear any sounds except for a firetruck, then another, emerging from the station on Stanyan Street. Fortunately Mr. Carton had his phone, and his phone had a signal. He called Charlene, but Charlene did not answer. She was watching television. Her phone was in the bedroom. She was more likely asleep on the couch and would not look at her phone until ten in the morning. He left a message anyway full of the general details of his predicament. Should he call someone else? The fire department? 911? That would be his last resort. If he knew the hashtag of the Head Tweetster he could send him an SOS, but of course Mr. Carton didn’t even know what a hashtag was. LOL.
He thought his eyes might get adjusted to the darkness but there was not enough light to adjust to. His phone beeped but it was not Charlene, it was only a warning that his battery was running down. For some reason, this tossed him right into the deep waters of panic. He pounded with his fist against the porcelain making thumps that no one could possibly hear.
Time flowed like sludge. A half hour? An hour? Mr. Carton’s ears echoed from his halooing. No one came for him. He felt his way back to the toilet bowl and sat down again and in this thinking pose, began to think he was losing his cool. Maybe even a little of his mind. This was a nightmare from which it was time to awake, but he could not. They would find his body in a week. The prospect of this humiliating death depressed him to the point of tears, even though he knew that Charlene would come looking for him in the morning. Unless, of course, the whole grid had collapsed, as Mr. Carton knew it would someday, and here he was, stuck in a john. His sniffles echoed sympathetically from the porcelain walls.
He heard something else. A flush. A lovely sound. He moved his arm. The paper dispenser hummed and dispensed. The lights danced back on. Quickly Mr. Carton stood and punched the door switch and the door slid open. The bedroom was dark. It had become night. The bridge in the distance looked unaffected by Mr. Carton’s ordeal and his glimpse of Armageddon. He resented it as much as it is possible to hold a grudge against an inanimate object.
The party was still going on. Everyone was still outside hovering around the thirty-six burners of the outdoor grill. Mr. Carton snatched a bottle of wine from one of the metal horse troughs, hid it under his coat, and went home.