The Plumber

He hung up the phone and checked his Rolex.

“He said he’d be right over,” he bellowed.

Female voice from bathroom, ricochet off mirrored medicine cabinet door where her pills lived, through hall, around corner, to ear in kitchen near phone: What? Who?

“The guy to fix the toilet.”

She leaned in close to the mirror, turning her head to one side. Peered peered at the lips puckering back at her as a hand traced red over the chapped but full skin. The head leaned closer to hers, revealing hairs and pores and baggage under watery eyes. For a second she thought the lips may kiss her. She recoiled, stepping back. The eyes gazed through hers, then moved down. Lips quivered at her. She tried to control them, but it was like watching television; she knew what the characters should do, but she could not make them. She tried to make the lips smile for her. She succeeded only in forcing them to part slightly. Yellow teeth snarled inside the head, then its lips sealed them in again, like a beast untamable because indifferent. Like Jack’s Doberman had snarled halfheartedly after having its tubes tied. She stepped away further from the head until the frame of the mirror two-dimensionalized the forlorn portrait. There were times when mirrors beckoned for her clenched fists. This was a time.

Her lips were red. She hit the light switch. The head vanished.

“Plumber’s coming.”

“I heard,” she said, in the kitchen now, next to him.

He tore the wrapper from a candy bar, sank his teeth voraciously into the brown pulp, hopped back up on kitchen counter, sending a half-emtpy bottle of Bourbon onto the scarlet carpet. It leaked but did not break.

“You fuck.”

“We got more. Lighten up,” he mumbled through nougat mush.

She glared at him, leaned down to snatch the bottle up, tossing it still almost half-full (half-empty, Jack would have said–or would he?) into the already overflowing basket. The bottle balanced miraculously atop a half-eaten orange on a Cocoa Puffs box. It was a monkey on a giant beach ball. It was in a circus, and so were they. As she leaned over, he slapped her playfully.

“Knock it off, porn star.”

He grinned. Brown fluid oozed thickly down his chin. “Oh, come on.” He swallowed loudly. “You love it.” He pulled her close.

“Yeah.” She did. She only resented it when he did it to the other girls. “Look at this place.”

“Have to call what’s her name again,” he said as he chomped another slab of the candy bar.

“You mean Sharon?” He nodded. Sharon was the maid. Sharon had cleaned on Monday. Today was Thursday. “Is it really that tough for you to remember a name, Jack? Do you even know my name?”

“Sure. But you matter. Why remember things that don’t matter?”

“What are you eating?”

“Three Musketeers.”

“How are they?”

He laughed. But then, he could laugh at anything. He held the firm dark shaft out at her mouth, its rippled bitten end wet, and soft inside. She looked, pulled her neck and head back away from it. He grabbed her arm, held her there and tried to feed her some of it. She said No thanks I’m not a cannibal and pulled free and he said Come on it tastes like chicken and laughed again and she did not and he shoved the last of them into the gaping cavern that was his mouth. The wrapper hit the liquor bottle but did not balance so well. He fumbled in his pants, retrieved his Zippo, snapped a Winston to life.

“When is that plumber supposed to be here?” she asked, lighting her own cigarette, a Vintage Slim. She used to just suck on his, but that was not enough for long. ‘I suppose it’s that way for him, with sex,’ she thought. ‘For me, too, I guess.’ She smiled for what felt like the first time in weeks. The fact that she was smiling made her smile.

“He said he’d be right over. But, you know that sort.” He glanced again at his watch. “Lazy bastard. Probly jackin’ off with one a my magazines.”

Her smile contorted into a strange audible gurgle, not because of what he said; the grin was merely evolving uncontrollably, feeding itself, a hyena looking at its reflection in a puddle. It felt like a laugh, she thought.

It startled him. “What’s the matter with you?”

She chortled loudly into his puzzled face.

“Did you forget to take your pills?” he asked. He was the solemn one now.

“What makes you think there’s something the matter? Can’t I laugh?”

“I had begun to wonder, lately.”

Her smile dried up.

“Sometimes you remind me of my shrink,” said Jack. “That fucker’s nuts, I swear it. Fucking psychotic trying to fix my head, tinkering with my libido. I’d do better telling your old man about my mother and my childhood and all that shit, instead of that cracker-jack. At least I know your old man won’t laugh at me,” he said, grinning again.

Her eyes shot refrigerated needles at him. His grin dwindled but did not evaporate.

“Do you think I should laugh at you? Are you a fucking clown, Jack? Maybe you should put on a red nose and entertain the kids we don’t have instead of fucking whores, you sadistic fuck.”

“Take it easy, Mar, I–”

“Take it easy? Is that your life philosophy? You should write your autobiography, Jack, and entitle it “Take It Easy: How to Become a Whore, a Rapist, and a Sodomite in Just 9 Easy Steps.”

“Sodomite? Sodomite? Who the fuck are you? Moses?”

“You’d sell lots of copies to prison inmates. Thirteen-year olds with acne would be knocking down our door to meet you. The Fuck Machine, in the flesh that half the country has already seen and masturbated with. You’d be famous, Jack.”

His smile cowered, hid somewhere in his throat. There were times when he wanted to slap her. He never had, but there were times. This was a time.

“Is that all you see when you look at me? A fuck machine?”

She could not look at him any longer. “No. Nevermind. Just forget it.” Fuzzy sheened eyes squinted at the Three Musketeers wrapper on the floor. The words were smeared.

“Listen,” Jack tried, “I didn’t mean to–I’m sorry I joked about your dad. You know I didn’t mean it. I feel as bad as you do about what happened . . . Well, not as bad as you, but, well, you know. I’m sorry, that’s all. It’s just that, well, life’s a bitch, and you gotta joke about it sometimes just to go on living. If you dwell on everything, you’ll go mad as a march hare. You gotta take it as it comes, Mar.”

“You putz.”


“Lighten up, take it easy, life’s a bitch, take it as it comes? Jesus, Jack. Where do you get this shit, from epigrams in your magazine articles?”

“I care. You know I care.”


“Hell, who do you think sat with your old man–”

“Andy. He has a name, Jack, and his name is Andy.”

“Sorry . . . You know me with names . . . But who do you think sat by your father’s–Andy’s bed for thirteen hours a day when he was tied up to all those machines? Who sat and talked to him, even when there was nothing to say, never knowing if he even heard a word I said? Who brought him groceries, and watched taped copies of General Hospital and Geraldo with him for hours and hours on end while spooning applesauce into him? That’s not my idea of fun, you know.”

“Yeah. I know what your idea of fun is, Jack.’

“No. You don’t.”

“Oh really? All right, fine. Tell me, then. Fill me in. What’s your idea of fun. Hm?”

His eyeballs lay prostrate on the linoleum, and now stumbled up to shake hands with hers but could not do it, could only look on from a distance. “I don’t know.”

“What the hell do you mean you don’t know? It’s not a trick question.”

“I guess it’s just something I’ve never figured out. That’s all,” he said, eyeballs shrinking and then collapsing again.

“It’s not something you figure out. It’s just something you feel, Jack. Maybe that’s your problem.”

“Yeah, maybe it is.”

“I swear, sometimes I don’t know why I . . .” She trailed off as though into an impregnable dark wood.

I care, Mar.”

“I know.” She wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “And you’re right. He’s a vegetable. You brought brown paper sacks filled with vegetables to feed another vegetable.” She looked at his mouth. There were times when she thought she could see it palpitating, quickening like a whisper of skin; but she was never sure. This was a time. “I just don’t like to think of him that way.”

They looked at each other. He scratched his neck, she bit her lip. He wondered if he should hug her or something. She wondered if she wanted him to touch her. Each wondered if they would sleep in the same bed tonight.

Finally he said, “Have a drink.” She looked as though she’d had several, and also like she needed another. “Slows down the heart. Makes you feel warm for a while.”

“Do you think I’m cold?”

“I don’t know, Mar.” He got down a bottle from the cupboard above her head. “Let’s just have a drink.”

He mixed two Vodka Cokes, handed her one, tossed half his down. She looked at his mouth a while, then took a drink. A mouth was more of a window than an eye, she had always believed. She wondered if she had a soul, and if he could see it stuck between her teeth. She pursed her lips.



“Why don’t you call me Margaret?”

“I don’t know. I just say ‘Mar.’ It’s easier.”

“You used to call me Margaret.”

“Yeah, well. It’s shorter, that’s all.”

“I don’t like ‘Mar.’ It sounds like ‘Smear’ or ‘Blemish,’ or ‘Taint.’ Or ‘Stain’ or something. I feel impure enough as it is.”

“I could call you ‘Spot.’ Here, poochy, poochy! Here, girl!” He made to pat her head.

“I’m serious,” she said flatly.

“It never bothered you before.”

“How do you know?”

“Well, you never mentioned it. If it bothered you, you should have let me know. Just come out with it, don’t let it plug you up inside. Keep the lines of communication flowing, you know?”

“Yeah, well. Now it’s out.”

“I’ll call you Margaret from now on, if it’ll make you feel better. But keep in mind, that’s two more syllables I’ll have to utter every time I call you. Life’s too short to waste moments on stuff like that, if you ask me,” he kidded.

“You and your pathetic maxims.”

They each inverted a few more glasses.

“Jack, can I ask you something?”

“No. You can’t. You’re a damned vegetable.”

She went on, “What would you think of me getting my tubes tied?”

“Fine with me,” he answered, a little too abruptly for her.

“You wouldn’t care?”

“I care. You know I care.”

“But it’s all right with you?”


“You still don’t want any kids?”

“Ah, hell. If we decide we want one a those, we can just kidnap one from the Nelsons next door. I think Bob beats em, anyway.”

“He doesn’t beat them,” she said.

“Who knows.”

She had that pensive look of hers. He didn’t like to see that look, plaintive and melancholy and stubborn as a stain that got worse and soaked in deeper as he scrubbed.

“Look,” he said, “do it if you want to. As far as I’m concerned, It’s senseless to add another piece of shit to this toilet of a world. I know how that sounds, but it’s how I feel.”

It did sound. But, for once, she sensed that he was speaking from his heart. She liked that he had something to say, and she wasn’t sure she disagreed. Sometimes he acted like a machine typing words onto the air, implanted words that weren’t his, some heard speech saved in files displaced somewhere in his cranial processor that just started printing when he started up now that the air was clean as white paper. But there were times when she knew he could feel, knew he did care, knew he had honest bones, and thought she loved him. This was a time.

“Besides,” he went on, “aren’t we doing O.K. now, just the two of us?”

She couldn’t decide, but she assented with a nod, down at the smeared words on the candy wrapper and the bottle–half empty or half full of nothing or half free–and yesterday’s newspaper soggy and torn in the trash.

“Mar, do you think we’re crazy?” he asked.

“Who knows. Why don’t you ask your shrink. Or, better yet, ask my old man.”

He looked curiously at her eyes and at her painted mouth. They were smiling–a real smile, giving his mouth permission to do likewise. There were times when he felt he needed permission. This was a time.

“We should go, we’re already late. I’ll leave a note for the plumber,” he said.

“O.K. Don’t forget to leave the door unlocked for him. I have to piss, then we’ll go.”

Before she sat down, she went into the pantry where they kept the towels and the Charmin and such and she got down a small box from the top shelf, behind a box of Playtex extra-absorbant tampons. In the box was a home pregnancy test kit. She stared at the words printed on the box for a minute, and then opened it. The box told her to “hold it in your urine stream,” and to wait ten minutes. She did. She did more than piss, too. After, she mechanically pulled the handle on the tank. Nothing happened. She remembered. Sucking in her gut, she stretched her fly together and managed to button it. She always managed, somehow.

She checked her watch, waited, waited, checked, watited, checked.



Blue meant positive, the box told her.

Leaving her rank tip in the bowl to float and wallow in itself, she glanced at the head in the mirror. Approaching it courageously, she inspected again the bags hanging beneath its sockets. They were slightly less hideous and unnerving than usual, somehow. “Never hurts to have baggage,” she told the head. “You never know when you might leave, or where you’ll go. Besides, you can only leave so much behind. Some of it you’ve just got to sling on your back and haul with you, or inside you.” It occurred to her that this sounded like something Jack would say. The head smiled at her, without her having willed it to.

“What happened in there?” Jack said when she came out. “We were about to send in a rescue squad.”

“I left a little something for the plumber to talk to. Forgot it was stopped up.”

“Well, when it’s gotta come out, it’s gotta come out,” he mused. “Let the plumber deal with it.” He flung on his black trench coat.

“You know, Jack,” she mused back, “it’s too bad there aren’t plumbers for the heart.”

“He’d be a wealthy man. If he ever showed up.”

He checked his watch.

“Well, you know that sort,” she mocked.

Reaching in his coat pocket for his keys his face frowned, he looked down, dug in, and pulled something out: an open Three Muskateers bar, half eaten, half melted, tarred and feathered with lint like a freshly hatched chick.

“Huh,” he muttered. “Look at that.” Talking to the bar: “How long you boys been stuck in there? Coulda been a miracle I guess, get sent to prison or stranded out in blizzard or somethin. But because I’m such a damned optimist, I’m gonna toss you. Sorry, boys.”

“You could just tear off the end and keep the rest,” she suggested.

“Nah. They wanna be together, doncha, boys.”

Both smiled. He tossed the old bar across the room at the trash, missing, shrugging. “Sharon’ll take care of it,” he said.

“You remembered her name, I’m impressed.”

“Yeah, well, you know me. I pretend things don’t matter, but it’s still just pretend.”

She decided not to tell him until later that night, after he had had a few more drinks. He would take it O.K. But later was better.

“Plumber should be here,” she said.

Jack looked again at his watch. “Well. We’ve waited long enough,” he said, jingling out his keys.

“Yeah. Leave it open, though,” said Mar.

They had, and he did, before they left.


copyright 1995 by dustin hansen