HAPLESS MALES 35

MR. CARTON CONFRONTS HIS DEMONS

After his recent trauma at his neighbor’s housewarming party, Mr. Carton took renewed delight in his simple house. Comfort at the shades that went up and down with the pull of a cord. Appreciation for the fireplace that accommodated real logs, lit with a match, even though most days were spare the air days. Satisfaction in the brass faucets that turned on and off with a twist of the wrist. Mostly off, anyway. The one in the bathroom leaked but that was a piddling annoyance. Overall his satisfaction could hardly be improved upon, and the same could be said about Charlene’s, despite the fact there had been in the past some sharp words between them about the desirability of a remodeled kitchen, Charlene stubbornly in favor and he stubbornly opposed.

The holidays were approaching. Charlene came home from work with a Christmas tree. If you knew Charlene, you would be as surprised as Mr. Carton was. Charlene was not someone to get in the wassailing mood. Mr. Carton knew better than to ask what got into her. For days the tree stood in a corner like the new kid at the orphanage. Finally Mr. Carton asked if she minded if he put some tinsel on it, maybe a few lights, and Charlene didn’t seem to care one way or another. So he proceeded. With Christmas trees, unless you are a very tasteful person, there is always the possibility, even the compulsion, to add one more ornament, and Mr. Carton had no particular loyalty to tastefulness. He trolled thrift stores looking for curiosities to drape over the needles. After a while a sort of theme emerged. Angels. They were not hard to find. The one he strapped to the treetop played Silent Night on a harp at the press of a button. Others blinked little strobes. Most were just the normal kind with dresses fanning from the velocities of flight.

Themes breed variations. Light needs dark. At one of the stores he found a wooden little devil. The demon’s perch in the needles surrounded by angels would be a kind of visual joke. However Mr. Carton did not stop at one. He began to focus on finding diabolical images of whatever incarnation, trolls, imps, gremlins, many the dreary backwash from Halloween but some with real personality and quirky talents. Eyes that lit up red. One that catcalled. Cute little devils especially excited him, as they do most people.

One evening, cinnamon-scented cider steaming on the stove, Mr. Carton was in his study when he became aware of a sound that, were it not so regular, might be mistaken for a mouse under a cat’s paw. Clearly it was something mechanical. Mr. Carton inspected the panoply of devices umbilically attached to the surge supressor. None of them had gone rogue for years, and he more or less trusted them to keep the peace.

The sound was barely audible but it was never inaudible. It was auditory water torture. He put on a CD of Earth Wind and Fire. The sound came through the music like a needle through a ball of cotton……cheep………cheep.

Mr. Carton took apart his phone. He turned off his printer and then the computer. The sound was louder now. It might be coming from the living room. Maybe from the Christmas tree. He had a moment of panic, fearing that he might have imported into his house an electronic bug under the skirt of one of the blinking angels or in the malevolent intention of red-eyed grimacing gremlin.

Here we should say that Mr. Carton, while proud of his intrinsic rationality, suspected to the point of near certainty that gremlins, virtual but demonstrably real, invaded electrical systems and one had to be vigilant against them. Not that he knew what vigilance entailed exactly but the willingness was there.

The cheeping persisted, every 17 seconds. Mr. Carton was halfway through dismantling the tree when Charlene got home from her Pilates class. After a half minute of reconnoitering, Charlene said, “It’s the carbon monoxide detector. The one in the hall. It probably needs new batteries. Have you changed them lately?”

What a peculiar question. Of course he had not. He had forgotten the device existed. The guy who installed it did so without asking. “You wouldn’t want to fall asleep and wake up dead.” How could Mr. Carton argue against that?

There might be some batteries in the kitchen drawer,” Charlene said. “They might still be good. I’m late for meditation. Bye. By the way, the pot on the stove has boiled dry. Don’t you smell it? One of these days you’re going to burn the house down.”

The demons lounging in the shadow of the Christmas tree mocked him. They would be in their element if he burned the house down. He decided to put them in the trash. They had worn out their welcome.

Change the batteries; that was doable. Double A. Did batteries lose power sitting in a drawer?

He replaced the old ones. Another cheep, louder, angry. He had one battery upside down. Sorry, he righted it. Cheep it went again. Aggressive. Cheep. Mean. Cheep. Hostile. He took the batteries out and was relieved the infernal device shut up. Two minutes of silence ensued. Balm in Gilead.

He was exhausted. As he usually did this time of evening, he sank into his easy chair and was about to cast off into oblivion when he sat upright with a start. What if the device was trying to tell him something? What if his snooze was the carriage that would bear him into eternity? He stood up quickly and opened the door to a cold blast of air, breathing in rapidly. It was raining, and drops were splashing onto the refinished oak floor. Charlene would kill him if it got water-stained. He closed the door and wiped the floor dry. The wall heater crackled, kicking back into operation. Was it trying to kill him?

Despite the risks, he sat back down in his easy chair to consider his options. It was raining heavily now. If he cracked a window would it make a difference? He stood and walked around the room. Did he feel like his own electrical systems were blinking out? The only feeling he could identify was an incredible sadness for himself. He was not ready to die and leave his happy home and his beloved Charlene, but he couldn’t keep walking around opening doors all night. He sat back down.

When Charlene got home, she tried unsuccessfully to rouse him and send him off to bed but she couldn’t. It was between two-thirty and three a.m. when his being heaved up into consciousness. His cellphone was insistently signaling a depleted battery. He usually hated the way it would always wait to do this until the wee hours of night but now he was so grateful to it for letting him know he was still alive.

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