Fiction - First Place
Paul had been sleeping in the spare bedroom for two weeks now, on a futon mattress on the floor. Pillows and a sleeping bag, slightly musty also. A carpet of newspapers and magazines. Clothes strewn and draped over closet doors and chairs. Glasses half-empty in corners, some sprouting mold. But the humming chill of the AC quieted and sanitized everything.
When the central air stopped working, it took three days to find the number of the HVAC guy--or, really, to remember to look for it, and then to find it, and then to actually call.
"Hi, you've reached Drew at Reliable Refrigeration and Heating. Leave a message after the beep."
That was a week ago. After three days he realized that Drew had not called back. It was getting hotter. Everyone was talking about the "drought of '99," the skyrocketing heat index. "No relief in sight!" the 11 o'clock news shouted. "Stay tuned for tips on how to beat the heat without losing your cool! Up next!"
Just another August in Baltimore, he thought, pointing the remote.
On the seventh day he called again. Drew's wife answered and asked who it was. She said she didn't know when Drew would be back. She asked who was calling. "You know it's his busiest time of the year," she chided, audibly dragging on a cigarette. He pictured her holding the phone in the crook of her neck, cord taut as she checked on the kids in the backyard through the kitchen window.
"His pager hasn't stopped since May. It's been 24/7, you know, but I'm sure he got your message. I'll tell him you called again." Exhaling, not even bothering to disguise the lie in her voice. He imagined her gesturing to the kids in silent, jerky movements as she talked. The mothers in that part of town had developed a mute yet powerful sign language of commands. He knew it was pointless to ask for the pager number.
He stared at the thermostat, turning the cordless phone over and over in his hands, twirling it by the antenna until it clattered to the floor. His pager. Of course. Julie would have had his pager number, and cell phone too. Memorized. Within 30 minutes of mechanical failure, having performed a quick troubleshooting rundown and actually checking the circuit breaker or whatever, she would be dialing. The woman was a walking utility program. She'd enter a room exuding some kind of diagnostic aura, as if to say, "I have detected errors in this space. Would you like to defragment it now?" Paul always wanted to hit "escape," or "No, but ask me again in __ days." Not Julie. She'd roll up her sleeves and hit the floor, or get him down there while she fetched a flashlight. If the diagnosis was "fatal error," the page would be placed.
Drew would answer promptly every time, as would the others. Julie had a special relationship with her contractors. They returned her calls and showed up on time. She shook hands, demanded something in writing, and made out a check on the spot--never more than 33 percent. She asked about their kids and the newest building materials, commiserated about the high price of dry wall while pouring coffee, and left a pitcher of water before heading off to work. They called her "Jule" in animated but truncated conversations; they knew not to linger too long. "Well, I'd better get up on that roof now."
If she were here the AC would be fixed by now, he thought as he raced around the Beltway to the electronics superstore, hoping to get there before closing time.
He carried it upstairs, beads of sweat plopping on the cardboard. Struggling to unpack the box, he thought how Julie would have whipped out a utility knife, slicing the seam in one smooth, surgical cut. It was easy to install, and within minutes he had plugged it in and turned the dial to 10. He dragged the box down the hall; when he returned to the room it was already chilled. He squirmed in delight under the crisp, cool sheets and fell asleep immediately.
In the morning he pulled on the day- before-yesterday's shirt and shorts and took the trash out. Putting the AC box in the alley, he smiled and greeted his neighbor, Mrs. Durevole, an Italian widow. She was watering a collection of potted plants on the ledge created by the concrete block wall separating their yards.
"Hello!" he said in a fake-cheerful sunny voice, giving a little Queen Elizabeth wave. Funny, he had started referring to her as the Italian widow. Why? He never used that word before. Widow. He was intrigued by her solitary, powerful presence, her dark dresses and head scarves, her full figure, still stout at 80. Not the petite, shrunken osteoporosis of the other women on the block who spent most days walking to the pharmacy or the corner store and caring for their ailing husbands. Sooner or later, every one of them fell and broke her hip. The ambulance would be summoned, and she would never come home again.
He never talked to Mrs. Durevole except for the requisite fake-cheerful sunny hellos. Julie did. They had some secret kinship, speaking in a rapid hush over the wall about God knows what. They would start out with pleasantries, botanical observations, and such, and within five minutes they'd be eye to eye, leaning against the wall, engrossed. Julie admired Mrs. Durevole and would recount some of the stories, but Paul only feigned interest and smiled.
Julie would watch Mrs. Durevole through the window as she washed dishes or chopped vegetables. "In her black dress like that, she reminds me of Muslim women in Cairo, the way they . . . scamper," she'd say. "Behind columns and between buildings. It was crazy to see all those women scampering about. Like beetles." And then she would imitate the souvenir peddler who'd sold her that carved chunk of turquoise she kept on the nightstand. "Is beetle, scarab beetle," she would mock in a fake Egyptian accent, slurring the words, rolling the "r," amusing herself to no end. "For good-luck charm." She would disappear down the hall muttering and laughing to herself. "Is beetle. Scarab beetle." One of the few times she was genuinely silly.
He was about to conclude today's encounter with the usual fake-cheerful sunny hello, anxious to get back to the AC, when he saw a white sudsy mass oozing over the mulch in the flowerpots. He watched her tip the watering can and saw the stream was dingy-gray, bubbling up to white when the dirt became saturated.
"There's suds in your water?" he said in a fake-polite but respectful tone. With the other neighborhood ladies he would have just dismissed it as comic lapse, a quirky symptom of aging. But with Mrs. Durevole, he knew there was a purpose. A purpose to every efficient action, no energy wasted.
"Uh-huh," she grunted, pouring, raising her eyebrows slightly, then turning her back to him. She was going to make him work a little, he could tell.
"Is this a new gardening technique?"
Silence, except for the pouring. Then a few seconds later, over her shoulder, "Bathwater."
He knew he should have understood, but he didn't get it. It's too early, he thought, feeling the dialog box in his brain pop up--Processing . . . please wait.
"For the drought. Save and reuse your bathwater, you know? Dishwater, whatever. Recycle."
"The drought. Of course." He nodded in exaggerated comprehension. "But what about the plants? It can't be good."
"They love it. It's fine. The man said so."
"On TV. Phosphorous, like in the bay, only in the bay it kills fish. But plants like it. Plants in the bay like it too, which is why the fish die, see? Now if I poured this down the storm drain, then that would be bad. But now I use it for my plants, and it's good. I saw it."
"Huh. I'll have to save mine," he said with phony enthusiasm.
She stopped midpour, walked to the wall, and stood on tiptoe for an animated scan of his yard. "For what?"
He laughed falsely, opening the door, swiveling and chatting over his shoulder. "Oh, I'll save it for you to use, OK?"
"Don't water my plants please."
"Oh, OK," he winked. He had never winked at anyone before, he thought.
He touched a random key on the computer and it whirred out of energy-saver mode. It was Saturday, midmorning, and too hot to Rollerblade or think about any of the usual activities. There was nothing he wanted to do, so he shuffled through some papers from the office. Maybe he would work on the latest revenue projections, do some bar charts with color for the big meeting.
Looking for his spreadsheet, he realized that all of Julie's files were still there. Had been there all along, lingering like the perfume he could still smell in the closets and on the sheets. His heart raced as he clicked on the first file, a database. The screen filled with rows and columns of names and numbers. Friends and family with anniversaries, birthdays, and names of children duly noted.
Then his eyes fixed on it as he tabbed through the pages. A subfolder of classified status: the house database. He highlighted and clicked gingerly, as if brushing dust from the Rosetta Stone. The key to the inner workings of the house in one database file. Pager and cell-phone numbers. The name and formula of the paint used in each room. Serial numbers of theft-prone items. Lock combinations and security codes. Every potential disaster anticipated. Of course, she didn't need any of it now. It was a waste of time, as he had always chided. He wanted to print it out, but there was no paper. As he closed the file, a dialog box appeared: "Do you want to save the changes you made to 'our home.dbf'?" He winced. He hadn't made any changes, at least not intentionally, so he hit no.
He scrolled through the directory of files--"budget," "phone list," "inventory." How comforting to know all this was here. He switched to the word processor, scrolling through a new list. A file called "my husband," saved two years ago, caught his eye. A small file, only 5KB. He swallowed hard, leaning back in his chair as he opened it. The screen filled with text--unmistakably a poem in shape and appearance. He leaned forward now, the chair creaking.
He felt a lump in his throat like he had when she told him she was leaving. They had sat on a blanket and cried, looking out at the harbor on that brilliantly sunny April day. He read the poem again and then selected file/save. Another box appeared with a question mark in a yellow triangle. "The file 'my husband' already exists. Do you want to replace 'my husband'?" He pushed the chair back on its wheels, jumping up, covering his mouth with his hands as he paced the room. At the window he twirled the miniblind baton, opening and closing the slats. A bunch of pigeons hunched on the phone wire. Above "my husband" was a file called "my life." He couldn't bring himself to open it. He left the room and walked around the house looking for something to do.
He went into the bathroom, and the mustiness of this windowless room in his mechanically failing house finally hit him. He squinted and saw a spot of mildew, nestled in the corner. He knew what he had to do.
The cleaning lasted for hours. He used bleach and attacked the spots on the ceiling. He pushed the vacuum into corners and behind doors he never closed now that no one else lived here. He collected armfuls of papers, clothes, and other objects scattered on the floor. He washed all of the dishes and moldy glasses. He polished the mirror and looked himself in the eye.
When he was finished, he stripped and filled the tub. He hadn't taken a bath in years. It was awkward at first, sitting there, not knowing what to do with his knees, random thoughts pattering as he swirled a washcloth in the suds. After he dressed, his hair still damp, he carried all of the trash he had collected out to the alley. Mrs. Durevole was there, quietly snapping faded geranium blooms, watching him but disinterested. He walked over and leaned on the wall, elbows resting between two clay pots. "Did I tell you I got a postcard from Julie a few weeks ago? She's in Egypt, but she's not sure how long she'll stay."
"No." A pause as she picked a few more blooms. "Yes, she is a desert person."
"Do you think so? She was always complaining about the heat, and she loved her plants."
"Not desert like heat and water. Like sand. Ancient. So simple you think you understand . . . you look and you see. Right? But no, the sand is always shifting only . . . you don't notice. Till you're lost."
The silence was so profound, they could hear the bubbles on top of the soil, popping.
"It's easy to get lost," Mrs. Durevole said, and put her hand over his. He felt comforted in a way he had not in years. Something took him back to childhood, to his mother rocking and shushing away a skinned knee. But he felt old too, and for the first time, wise. He sighed, and squeezed her hand in return.
"I'm saving my water now," he said, after another small silence. "Look."
There, on the edge of Julie's raised bed, was an old five-gallon paint bucket full of bathwater. Another, under the bedroom window, collected the condensation from the air conditioner.
She peered over on tiptoe and laughed gleefully. "Buono! Molto buono!" Her face was lit up, her head thrown back. "Tomorrow, I help you fix your garden, if you want. But now I have to go. Good night!" And she went inside.
As her storm door closed he heard Julie's voice in his head and smiled. Is beetle. Scarab beetle.
Lisa Stachura lives in Canton and works for a nonprofit housing and community-development organization. She has previously published poetry and essays and articles on urban and political issues. This is her first piece of published fiction.
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