Sometimes you come across a short story that demands your attention, ‘Mark on the Toilet’ by Jeff Elkins is such a tale. I first read this story three weeks ago and it’s been popping back into my head ever since.
Mark sat on the toilet again, pants around his ankles, watching for the time to change on the small, black, portable, digital alarm clock seated on the sink to his right. He ran his fingers through his thinning hair and then rubbed his goatee. He looked at the clock again.
It read 1:57am. Three minutes to go.
His knees were cold. He wondered if pulling his pants down was necessary for the magic. Not wanting to chance it, he left them around his ankles.
Noise drifted from the neighbor’s yard. The remnants of a raucous party lingered on the back deck. Mark was nervous. Did he need absolute silence for the magic to happen? It had been silent the other times. What if the noise destroyed the moment?
A girl outside let loose a flirtatious giggle. In a panic Mark lurched up from the porcelain throne, shuffled to his left, raised the bathroom window, and screamed in anger, “Shut the fuck up already! It’s two-o-clock in the goddamn morning! Get a room!”
The clock ticked 1:58 am. He returned to his place on the cold, white seat. He heard the girl giggle again, and then a door closed. They were gone. He was alone. “Thank God,” he whispered to himself. He tried to relax by finding the special tile on the wall in front of him. Even though it looked like every other white bathroom tile on the wall, he didn’t have to search for it. His eyes went straight to it.
The clock progressed to 1:59am.
Excited and brimming with anticipation Mark wondered what scene the tile would bring tonight. Maybe he would see the time they shared a bowl of ice cream and Mary got some on her nose? Or maybe it would be the first time they watched You’ve Got Mail together on the couch? Or maybe the time he surprised her with dinner, and they made love in the kitchen before they ate?
Mark hadn’t figured out how to control what played. This was only his twelfth night watching the magic. A few days ago he had tried meditating on one memory all day, but his concentrated thought didn’t seem to have an effect on what the tile chose to display. Before that he had attempted conjuring up a specific image as the ceramic wall tile started to glow, but the image he dreamed of wasn’t related to the scene he watched. One night he had placed items from a specific event all around the bathroom hoping they would guide his journey, but the objects didn’t help either. Finally Mark had surrendered to the mystery of the moment and learned to appreciate whatever vision came.
There were a lot of great memories to relive. Seven years is a long time to share a house with another person. No memory replay had been over five minutes long. Subtracting time they were asleep or not at home, Mark guesstimated there were at least 75,000 five–minute memories to watch. He would savor each one. These short daily encounters had become the climax of his life. Night after night he stayed awake waiting for the moment when the tile on the wall delivered.
The clock changed to 2:00am.
It was time. Mark focused intensely on the white ceramic tile in the center of the wall. He tried to look past it, to direct his gaze through it.
Mark had discovered the glorious, vision–giving white tile by accident. He had been drinking alone on the one year anniversary of Mary’s departure. He had come into the bathroom to pee, but he couldn’t keep his legs under him, so he had to sit. To his surprise and disgust, instead of relieving his bladder, Mark involuntarily leaned forward and loosed the contents of his stomach all over his feet and the floor. The smell of regurgitated bourbon, stale pizza, and chocolate was horrific. When he sat up he noticed the flicker. One of the white tiles was haloed with a faint blue glow. Mark looked closely and reached out to touch it when, suddenly, the tile magically lit up like a flat screen, high definition television. Mark watched the tile intently. That first night it played a scene from five years before. He and Mary sat at their kitchen table with their next door neighbors, engaged in a lively game of scrabble. There was laughter, conversation, and epic friendship. Mark teased Mary for having to use the dictionary. Mary playfully pushed him in reply.
After five minutes the tile went white again. Mark pressed it, yelled at it, banged on it; all to no avail. It was still and cold, as if nothing special had happened.
Mark awoke the next morning in the bathtub, still smelling of vomit; sure he had imagined the show. Hoping it hadn’t been a dream, the next night he sat in the bathroom alone, waiting. To his great delight, it all happened again. This time the tile revealed him and Mary eating Chinese food and watching some stupid reality show. From her haircut, Mark deduced the scene was from around six years ago.
Every night since, at 2am, Mark watched the life he had known and lost.
The clock ticked 2:01am. Mark began to panic. What if the magic didn’t happen tonight? What if last night had been the tile’s final performance? What if the wonder had run its course? He didn’t know if he could live without his five minute replay. He began to sweat with fear. His eyes stung from the intensity of his stare. His heart raced; but Mark refused to break his focus. He glared at the tile before him, willing it to glow, demanding it glow.
Then the blue halo began. At first faintly, then building strength.
Mark sighed with relief. He leaned in closer for a better look.
Mary was there in the tile, sitting alone at the kitchen table, thumbing through a magazine. She glanced nervously at the clock on the kitchen wall. Mark wondered how he had missed her beauty those seven years they were together. She was wearing a grey tank top and flannel, plaid, pajama pants. Her short brown hair framed her face. Her deep, sea-blue eyes sparkled. When she looked up again at the clock and bit her lower lip, Mark’s heart skipped.
He didn’t recognize this moment. Where was he? What night was this?
Mary heard someone come in the front door. She stood with a look of concern. “Where have you been?” she asked gently, forcing her anxiety down.
“Oh no,” Mark moaned with pain. “Not this moment. Not this. Not tonight. Not now. Oh
no. Oh no.” His eyes began to feel with tears. A knot formed in the top of his throat. He fought the urge the run. He knew he needed this. He needed to see it. He needed to watch.
“I’ve been worried sick,” Mary said to unseen figure. “Where did you go? You got up to go to the bathroom and never came back. Who does that? Who just leaves?” Her brow was furrowed and her eyes confused and frustrated.
A bleary eyed Mark stumbled into the scene. He pushed past Mary and fell into a seat at the table. He sat with sprawled apathy, his legs spread wide. “What? Why do you care?” he challenged aggressively.
Mary sat down across from him. She knit her eyebrows together and said, “What do you mean ‘why do I care?’ You left me. At dinner? I thought you had gone to the bathroom but you never came back. I sat and waited for you for over an hour. I had to call Susan to come and get me. Where did you go?” she demanded with sorrow.
“I don’t know,” Mark said pulling a cigarette out of the box he had retrieved from his pocket. His words were sharp and biting. “I went to get a drink.” He lit the cigarette with a lighter and exhaled smoke toward the ceiling.
“What is wrong with you?” Mary pleaded. She put her head in her hands and began to cry. “Why would you do that to me? Who does that? Who just leaves someone behind?”
Mark leaned forward close to her ear. “You were having such a great time laughing with Brad,” he said menacingly. “I didn’t think I was needed any more. I thought Brad would bring you home.”
Mary looked up stunned. “That’s what this is about? He just stopped by the table to say hi. I haven’t seen him in six years.”
Mark leaned back again and took another puff of the cigarette. “Well, I wanted to give you two some space to catch up.”
A car horn called from out front and Mark stood to go.
“Where in the hell are you going?” Mary questioned, her mouth open with amazement.
“Sarah and Terry are waiting for me,” he said as he crossed the kitchen and opened a drawer. “I just came in to get another lighter ‘cause this one is old and it sucks.” He tossed the old lighter on the counter for dramatic effect.
“It’s midnight,” Mary said standing. “Where are you going now?”
“Why don’t you call Brad and ask him!” Mark screamed with sudden, terrifying ferociousness.
“Don’t do this,” Mary pleaded quietly looking at the floor.
Mark loomed over her, challenging her. “I don’t need this shit,” he said at her. Then again slowly emphasizing each word, “I don’t need this shit.”
“Don’t go,” Mary replied quietly without looking up, but Mark didn’t hear. He was already out of the scene moving toward the door. When it slammed, Mary collapsed onto the hard kitchen floor. She curled into a ball, pulling her knees to her chest, and softly sobbed. “No, no, no,” she mumbled to herself. “No, no, no.” Over and over. “No, no, no,” she sobbed.
The clock changed to 2:05am and the tile went white.
Mark wiped the slobber, snot, and tears from his face with the back of his hand. He stood, pulled his pants up, and moved to look in the mirror over the sink.
He ran the cold water, cupped his hands under the stream, and splashed the gathering reservoir into his eyes. Exhaustion attacked him. He wanted to lie down, to sleep. He wanted a drink. He wanted to forget. He wanted to deny it all, to deceive himself, to find a way to place the blame on her.
He splashed water on his face a second time and gazed listlessly into the mirror. His reflection stared back at him. The mirror image was sad, alone, and disappointed in the man Mark had become.
As I’m sure you’l be happy to know, you can read a lot more of Jeff’s work over on his blog Vagrant Misunderstandings. Jeff has also published two books, Sinful?: Breaking All the Rules and Losing All the Rituals and B-More Stories: 21 Short Stories From Baltimore. You can, and should follow Jeff on Twitter.