Her ears ring constantly, and her hair is falling off in chunks so dense that they clog every drain in the bathroom. It could be the antidepressants, or maybe it’s the painkillers – it’s hard to be sure. She should call the doctor; she calls the plumber instead.
He turns out to be a burly man with beautiful teeth and an accent, the kind she last heard on a television show about a hit-man who keeps trying to quit the business. He asks her what seems to be the problem. She says she doesn’t know, has never known. He hauls a machine up the stairs, something with a drum in its belly, a coiled snake in its mouth, and a name that she doesn’t quite catch. Perhaps it’s an ogre, a slavering beast that would wait and watch from the cool darkness of her shower, and leap out at her with pent up desire. Or it might be an augur, a saying of sooth, a foretelling of nothing good.
The plumber talks while he works. His hands are calloused, hairy, the tips so flattened with dirt that she cannot tell where his skin ends, and fingernails begin. His voice is a velvet rumble, and when he speaks, the sludge of her blood shifts and moves in her veins. “Maybe your husband done something?” he says. “One time I find goldfish in the bowl, floating belly up. My client says her husband wakes up in the middle of the night, sees dead fish in the fish tank, tosses it into toilet.” That’s when something happens to the words that come out of her mouth. She tries to tell him she doesn’t have a goldfish; she says instead that she has no husband. The plumber’s gaze travels past her, to the dilapidated bed, shored up by twin nightstands, sagging with dust. “You missing anything?” he says. “Some of your son’s toys?” She clears her throat, intends to say it’s not her son. What she says is that there is no son, either. She picks up the fading blue toddler toilet insert, yellowed around the rim, and holds it for a moment. Then she puts it in the cabinet, closes the door. He is silent, feeding the snake deeper and deeper into the drain. Abruptly, he stops the motor and looks at her.
He turns on everything – the shower, the sink faucet, the toilet flush. They stand there, eyes fixed on one another, listening to the water trying to make up its mind, circling and circling around the drains, and then, with a gasp, tumbling into the plangent pipes. He says he’s done the job; he’s gotten rid of the obstruction. As she walks him downstairs, two figures appear behind the cloudy glass of the front door, backlit by the setting sun. But their once-familiar shapes seem blurred, unrecognizable; their once-dear voices sound far away.
Perhaps it’s her perpetual curse, now, to mishear, mistake, misunderstand, and be misunderstood. Or her particular gift, to say the truth but say it slant. She’ll never be sure why, when the plumber turns to her, his teeth glowing orange in the light, and says, “You want me to get rid of them?” she doesn’t ask him to repeat the question; she says, “Yes.”