You get to a certain age, you wake up to piss. For me it's around five in the morning.
Of the various changes you go through as the years pass, this one's not so bad—at least for now. In the pre-dawn stillness I can hear the crash of the distant waves. Sometimes through the window I'll see the bright moon hanging in the leavening dark, a time known in Spanish as la madrugada, the early hours before twilight and the rooster crow.
I move toward the bathroom in a state of ethereal half-sleep and do my business. After 57 years on earth, I have no need to see my penis in order to find it. And since I live alone, I don't even have to raise or lower the seat.
Returning to bed, I always note the time on the alarm clock. Generally, life still owes me another 90 minutes of sleep before my self-imposed wake-up call, which actually seems pretty satisfying. These little wakeups used to annoy me, another irrefutable physical sign—like back hair and arthritis—of my inevitable decline. Now I think of it more in terms of having a little nap to start the day. It shows, I think, how much attitude matters.
Sometime over the past few years, this pleasant and necessary ritual of my middle years became corrupted by the appearance of a random stubborn noise.
I'd be standing there mid-stream with my eyes half-shut when all of a sudden I'd hear it: Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.
A rhythmic sound. Periodically uniform. Five or six knocks in a row. Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap. And then nothing for an imprecise span of time. And then again. Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.
If the house was very quiet, I'd occasionally hear it during the day. For long stretches I didn't hear it at all. But it always returned, most often at night, the noise seemingly localized in the wall and ceiling adjoining my bathroom commode. Eventually, I discovered the tapping also could be heard in the reciprocal bathroom on the other side of the wall. It sounded as if the wind was causing something to sway, perhaps a copper pipe, which in turn was knocking against something wooden. From the nature of the sound, the rhythm of the knocks, it seemed as if (I intuited?) this pipe was acting in the same fashion as a clapper in a bell. I imagined a pipe somewhere that wasn't strapped down properly, pushed by the wind, slapping a 2x4.
At some point, I engaged a plumber, but the sound wasn't in evidence that day—of course.
"Maybe you have a ghost?" the plumber joked, taking my credit card.
The way he looked at me, I could tell he was thinking more along the lines of bats in the belfry.
Nights turned into weeks. Months into years. Despite my regular use of saw palmetto [www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/971.html]—which helps to keep the prostate pliable and is used by some topically as a cure for baldness—I continued to rise in the early morning hours to take my piss.
Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.
The longer the knocks persisted, the more annoyed I became. My lovely little sojourn through the dark and quiet oasis of la madrugada had been ruined.
Instead of beholding the hypnotic beauty of the full moon I began to entertain a recurring psycho fantasy: I'm bashing holes in the wall, hunting down the fucking tapping noise once and for all.
As long as I'm being so intimate about my plumbing, let me confess that the shower in the reciprocal bathroom, the only other shower in the house, has never worked properly. It became clear many years ago that the tile wall had to be removed and the guts replaced. If you're a homeowner, you know how these things go—I knew if I started, I'd end up remodeling the entire room. Where I live, a modest bathroom renovation comes in at about five figures. As a result, my son has shared the shower in my master bath for his entire life. Which was fine. I've never much encouraged overnighters anyway. So sorry, the shower in the guest bath is broken.
Now my son is a freshman in college. Since Thanksgiving he's been talking about his first Spring Break, that great rite of college he's been watching for so many years on MTV. Breasts and booze and parties, oh my. Something epic was in the offing.
By New Year's Eve, he had a plan for himself and his friends—at last count a total of five artsy kids with tats, piercings and various hair colorings, in addition to his best friend from high school and his visiting girlfriend, respectively an offensive left tackle and a varsity basketball player.
Their destination: sunny San Diego.
And more particularly, our house.
I called the contractor. In one day, the old bathroom was in my driveway.
Inside, the guest bath was reduced to studs and concrete.
And there was a new sound—like a file rasping against metal bars.
Nobody had any trouble hearing it, either.
Night and day, it continued nonstop.
Rasp, rasp, rasp, rasp, rasp.
They re-plumbed the shower, patched the drywall, laid new tile. I wrote a bunch of checks and charged a bunch of stuff at the hardware store.
The rasping disappeared.
But the tapping came back.
Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.
Louder and stronger than ever.
And constant. Unrelenting. 24/7.
Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.
The contractor took pity on me. We grabbed a ladder and I climbed to the roof. I crawled around one side of the attic; he stuck his head up through another side. Nothing. The only place you could hear the noise was in the two bathrooms, in the walls and ceilings adjoining the commodes and the new shower—the place we'd completely stripped and rebuilt. We'd had the walls and ceiling open, fer chrissake. There was nothing to find.
On the last day of construction, the plumber came back to hook up the new sink. The boss came along. As the plumber was working, the boss, contractor and I walked around the house again, rehashing the peculiar history of my egregious phantom tapping.
As we were listening in my bathroom, throwing theories against the wall, the tapping sound suddenly stopped.
The kids are due this weekend. I haven't heard any more tapping, though I admit I'm kind of waiting for it. The boss plumber says it was probably due to a build-up of water pressure. But even a guy like me, whose toolbox consists mainly of string, tape, glue and a checkbook, knows that the set of variables doesn't fit his conclusion.
In the meantime, I've regained the pleasure of my lovely little sojourn through the dark and quiet oasis of la madrugada. The other night the Pacific sky was especially clear. There were a zillion stars.
The winter crescent moon was beacon-bright. It resembled a smile.
Photo by Blend Images/Alamy