It was a sticky, overcast August day in the Connecticut River Valley, and it was going to be a heavy one.
Already, at 9:00 in the morning, Ed was poking his head into a series of little rooms upstairs in Elsie’s old Colonial, looking for the bathroom, only to find each room occupied by a resident cat, or two. Gray and white cats, tabbies, a Maine coon, and a black one whose white mustache made him think of Charlie Chaplin in reverse. Finally, he located the bathroom, where he inspected the toilet, which hadn’t flushed properly since God knew when. Memories of the old lady who’d lived on his block the year that he housesat on the Vineyard came back to him. She’d refused to give up her thirty-odd cats, even when she got too stiff to bend down to clean their many litter boxes, and she’d finally fallen into one, where she’d been found when the smell of feline and human decay began to drift pungently down the street. But this lady wasn’t old enough to be so eccentric, Ed thought as he went down the worn, wooden stairs to join his client.
Elsie stood at the bottom of the stairs, peering up at him through her tortoise-shell frames. She was pale, with straight, long brown hair tied back and furrows between her eyes that gave her a perpetually anxious look. “Well, can you fix it?”
“Sure. But I’m surprised that you’ve lived with it so long, flushing by hand…”
She sighed. “I just haven’t had the money. But I thought, as long as you were here for the porch, maybe…Will this cost much? The toilet, I mean.”
“I’m not a plumber but I think I can do it in an hour or two. Say eighty bucks, tops, plus minimal parts.”
“Okay.” She bent to caress yet another cat, this one black with green, sphinx-like eyes.
Ed went out to his truck, reflecting on the parsimony of women as he sorted his tools and figured out his plan of attack on the porch. Women alone, in particular, always seemed to feel they were living on the sharp edge of poverty, no matter how much they made. They’d let their houses fall down around them before they called a carpenter or a plumber! Look at Hannah, the pretty teacher off in the woods in Durham, whose house was so full of mold that she was sick with allergies all the time, and yet she wouldn’t do anything about it. Too expensive! And the way his ex’s friends used to carve up the check after a modest lunch, afraid they might have to pay a dollar more because someone else had wine or dessert! Must be some atavistic fear dating back to when they couldn’t own property, when they were at the mercy of their husbands. He took an assortment of drills from the back of his truck and sized up the rickety front porch, which had made Elsie’s insurance company decline to cover the house. As he began to knock it down with a crowbar, a family of chipmunks skittered out in terror, fleeing their crumbling home.
After a couple of hours, just as he’d finished sinking support beams, the gray summer sky clouded over and it began to rain. Elsie poked her head out the door and asked him if he’d like a sandwich. The one she served him was dauntingly healthy: it bristled with sprouts, both in the heavy wheat bread and on the cheese filling.
“Good,” he said, poking errant sprouts into his mouth. “Is this from Healthy Choice?” He knew she worked there, at the organic emporium on Main Street.
“Do you like it?”
“I did. Things are a little tense recently; there’s a new manager.”
“New ways to get used to?”
“Well”—she grimaced—“it’s more than that. I’m afraid she’s more…gentrified than most of us there. Organic food’s getting to be big business now.”
“The gentrification of health food,” Ed said in his portentous radio-announcer voice, making Elsie smile. Which made her almost pretty, especially when she took off her glasses.
“Yeah, well… She’s raised prices and brought in all this chichi stuff, like energy bars and colon cleansers.”
“Ah, yes. For thousands of years people thought the colon cleansed itself, then all of a sudden some bright guy in California decided to disabuse them of that naïve idea and lo, colonics were born.”
Elsie giggled. The two cats sitting on the chair beside her opened their eyes in astonishment. “Those of us who’ve been around for a while—the old hippies, you might say—are afraid she might decide to get rid of us.”
“And get someone with a degree in Arcane Food Science?”
By now she was laughing and had lost her worried look completely, and the cats were positively gaping. “You’re pretty literate, for…” she started to say and then looked embarrassed. “Sorry.”
“For a carpenter? Well, Jesus Christ was a carpenter and so was Harrison Ford.”
“Really? Ford, I mean.”
“I just like being my own boss. It’s my seventies blood.”
“I certainly understand.”
Just then his cell rang. It was Hannah, the lady in Mold Haven, complaining of a faucet that wouldn’t shut off. Could he come by this afternoon?
“No, I’m busy building a porch.”
“In the rain?”
“I’ve got something else to do inside for the next couple hours, and by then it’ll have stopped raining. But if it hasn’t, I’ll come.”
“Oh, please, Ed, I’m frantic. Frantic.”
You always are, he thought. “You really should get a plumber. How do you know I can fix it?”
“They cost so much and they don’t come right away. I don’t want to spend the night here with my well emptying!”
“I’ll try.” He hung up. “Never should have gotten this damn phone,” he said to Elsie. “It just means they can always track you down.”
“You’re not going to leave, are you?”
“Only if the rain doesn’t stop. Right now I’m going to fix the toilet, don’t worry.”
Women and their demands, he thought as he went out into the rain to get his wrenches. He thought of Janet, his ex, saying do this, do that, when are you going to get to that washer? Replace the battery in the smoke alarm so we won’t fry in our beds? It was nice to go home to silence at 5:00—dull sometimes, but restful. The john wasn’t as easy to fix as he’d thought. Three cats came in to watch him as he struggled to attach the chain he’d found in his toolbox. Then one kept scratching at the door of the linen closet, so he finally got up and let it go in. He noticed a tube of Astroglide jelly on a shelf inside. So Elsie did have some action going, or had had. Good for her. Maybe if she had a good man in her life, she could get rid of some of the kitties…stop it, never get mixed up with customers! Damn, the chain broke, so he had to go brave Wal-mart to get another one.
But the day tilted away from Elsie. Even though it took longer to fix the john than he’d thought, it was still raining sheets, so he assured her that he’d be back in the morning to go on with the porch and left for Durham. There, Hannah’s little red house shrouded in trees and overgrown bushes, sort of looked like the witch’s in Hansel and Gretel. He took out his toolbox and ran through the rain.
“Oh, Ed, you came!” Hannah squealed as she opened the screen door into the kitchen and hugged him. “I’m so frantic, so verklempt!”
“Anxious, fraught. I was so fraught, you can’t imagine…”
“Can a person be fraught? I thought something was fraught with problems but not a person.” He thought he was being playful but Hannah took offense.
“Of course! People say it all the time. Anyhow, how would you…?” She stopped herself just in time, realizing that it wasn’t nice to insult the person who was coming to save her. How would you know? You’re only a carpenter!
He said, mildly: “Can’t help it, I was an English major.”
“Oh! Anyhow, come in.” She was a good-looking, middle-aged woman with bleached-blond hair, in tight jean cut-offs and a pink t-shirt that said Yes, We Can!, with pointed emphasis on the Yes and Can. “This sucker just keeps running and running.” She nodded at the kitchen faucet.
“Water, water, everywhere,” he chanted, spreading out his wrenches. An aristocratic, orange Siamese cat was sitting on the counter, surveying the steady stream in fascination. She was obviously a cat from a pet store, not a stray like Elsie’s cats. He got on his back and tried to cut off the water under the sink with the pipe wrench but it just kept coming. As he worked and she passed him new wrenches, the two constants were a persistent smell of mold from inside the cabinet (unpleasant) and Hannah’s legs standing there outside (pleasant, if on the skinny side). And there were mouse droppings: Kitty didn’t seem to be doing her job. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of fiddling, Hannah said it was down to a trickle, and he pushed himself out and staggered to his feet.
“I think you’re in for some major plumbing. That pipe is all rotted out.”
“It’s still running,” she pouted.
“I told you I wasn’t a plumber. It’s under control; that’s all I can do.”
She nodded. “Okay. Would you like some iced tea? Or a beer?”
“No, thanks, Hannah. Got to go. Just fifty bucks.”
She looked at him levelly with her brown eyes. “I can’t pay you today. It’ll have to be the beginning of the month, when I get start to get paid again.”
“I don’t bill, Hannah. Strictly cash. You know that.”
“Teachers don’t get paid in the summer. It’s hard to budget.”
“Yeah, well, some of us don’t get paid at all.” He swung his toolbox off the counter, remembered that he had no money for groceries, and suddenly lost it and yelled at her. “What do you do with your money? You can’t spend it all on makeup, can you? You’ve been teaching for years, you must be making what? Eighty grand at least, and your house is crumbling around you.”
“That’s none of your fucking business. Thanks, but just go.”
“Life’s hard for everybody, Hannah. But you’ve got to pay your bills.”
Maybe it was the unstable weather of the summer, the incessant rain, but then she lost it too and began to yell at him. All of a sudden, she pulled up the Obama t-shirt to reveal a black lace bra and nice breasts nestling in it. “Okay, Ed, you want to take it out in trade?”
“Hey, listen, are you crazy?” He couldn’t believe this was happening to him: nothing like it ever had, in the twenty years since he’d given up teaching unruly middle-school students and decided to go into business for himself. He had his hand on the screen door to leave, but then she started to rub up against him like a cat, and the next thing he knew the toolbox thudded to the floor, and he was putting his tongue into her mouth. And then they were shuffling into the bedroom, stepping on the orange cat in the process, which ran off howling. He didn’t really like Hannah much, never had: she wasn’t a JAP, he guessed, since she obviously didn’t have much money behind her, but she had a sense of entitlement that pissed him off, even before the events of today. But somehow, his disapproval fueled his lust: she did have a good body, even pushing sixty—he’d been coming to do jobs for her for twenty years now—and she used it with an almost professional expertise, as though she’d been a geisha in another life instead of a first-grade teacher. She scratched and bit and caressed him while thunder crashed appropriately outside (amazingly, the words “the Pathetic Fallacy,” glued long ago in his head in a college course, raced through his mind as he entered her). They cavorted on satin sheets with a low murmur of women’s voices in the background that he couldn’t quite place (afterward he discovered that Home Shopping Network was yammering on the tube). He didn’t last too long because he hadn’t had a woman in four years, but it was memorable.
“Wow,” he said afterward, and drifted off.
When he woke up, Hannah was propped up on her satin pillow, watching a video with the sound off on the enormous TV; it looked like Some Like It Hot. He realized that the small bedroom was lined with shelves of videos and DVDs; it was nearly claustrophobic.
“I always thought you were cute,” she said, looking over at him.
“Likewise,” he said.
“You certainly didn’t show it.”
“Don’t you have a boyfriend?”
She looked away. “I did, but we broke up. That is, he broke up with me because I’m too old.”
“That wasn’t nice. How old was he?”
He almost laughed because he had a son who was thirty-five.
“That is pretty young. People usually like to be with someone their own age, at least in the same ballpark.”
“Men don’t. They go for much younger women, why not older?”
“They’ve got these porn sites on TV with older women,” she said, studying Marilyn Monroe, who was standing over the subway vent, enjoying the breeze.
“Maybe you should try posting something on one.”
She shook her head. “Some parent might see it. I need my retirement.” She sighed. “Isn’t she wonderful?” she said, meaning, apparently, Marilyn. “She’s so…”
He reached over and touched Hannah’s rather sharp collarbone. She had olive skin, which stood out against the pale-pink sheets, and her small body was firm and slim, unusual for someone her age. He was beginning to like her better now: when she’d talked about being dumped by her boyfriend, she’d had a vulnerable quality that he hadn’t seen before. She turned off the TV and ran her hand slowly over his chest and down to his belly. He reached for her. And then the phone rang. Don’t answer it, he prayed, but she looked at the Caller ID and did just that.
“Cary!” she exclaimed and then had a long conversation about insignificant things, like the dress that Cary had just bought. How could she do that? The moment had passed. He got up angrily, pulled on his jeans, and looked at her video library while he waited for her to finish. The room seemed more and more oppressive as the shelves and gigantic TV screen leaned in toward him, and suddenly he couldn’t wait to leave.
“You’re not staying?” she asked when she finally hung up.
“Can’t. Got to make dinner…and do some stuff,” he said lamely.
“I’ll order some pizza.”
Who’s going to pay for it? he almost said; he had about ten bucks to his name. “Another time, Hannah.”
Her face seemed to crumple. “How can you just leave, after that?”
“How can you have a non-urgent conversation, after that?”
“It was my daughter,” Hannah answered, as though that explained everything. “She’s getting married.”
She put on a black kimono and followed him out to the kitchen.
“Stay,” she said, stroking the orange cat that was now perched on the table. “I hate being alone in the rain.”
“I’ll be back. Really.”
To his astonishment, this tough lady, who had so shocked him with her advances an hour ago, began to cry. He turned back from the door and put his arm around her, staring down at the graying roots in her platinum hair as she sobbed.
“I’m not usually like this…It’s the way my parents raised me. They made me think that the only thing I had going for me was my looks, and I’ve always felt that if I don’t have a man in my life, I’m useless.”
“That’s a very narrow view of you,” he said, thinking that maybe it was time, at sixty, to get a wider one. He wasn’t sure whether she was explaining her original seduction of him or her reluctance to let him go.
“Yes. They didn’t know any better, they were Stalinists, materialists…My father was a bastard. I was a Red Diaper Baby, you know.”
He tried to tell her that he wasn’t really rejecting her, that it was possible and even desirable to live without sex for a while, as he’d learned to, and that maybe they should get to know each other a bit before they plunged into deep sexual waters again. Finally, her shoulders stopped heaving, and he kissed her red eyes and escaped.
He gulped the fresh air, which already smelled of roots and rotting leaves. It was only six, he saw as he turned on the ignition, but because of the bad weather, it was already getting dark. He really would have to get Hannah to do something about that mold problem—if he ever came back. The way she’d said she needed a man in her life sounded very impersonal, as though any old passing stud would do. Still…
He barreled down the hill through historic Durham, an old farm town that was getting gentrified, neat lawns and tin houses transforming the pastureland he’d known as a boy. He remembered his mother gathering lilacs along here, and a yearly event, the Sleigh Meet at a farm on Guilford Road, that his parents used to take him to when there was a big snow. The kids, with the snow spray in their faces, sat under smelly blankets on sleighs that were pulled around by enormous draft horses.
Suddenly, he smiled. His parents, now dead, hadn’t been perfect, but his childhood sounded like a dream compared to Hannah’s. When he got home, first he’d whip up his meal for hard times, rice and beans. Then he’d Google Red Diaper Baby.
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