A Water Treatment

      by Susan Pashman

It was a damp December day, inching up on four thirty. Through the wide bowed living room window Marilyn could see the usual neighbors passing, walking their dogs before the busy dinner hour arrived, dashing out for some ingredient just discovered missing. Mrs. Hannibal from Forsythia Lane was hurrying to meet the school bus as she always did on Wednesdays when her son stayed late for soccer practice: until recently, she would wave when she saw Marilyn at the window. Already, the sun was sinking, the lights were coming on in houses across the street, and Marilyn found herself trying to decide whether to pull on another sweater or simply turn up the thermostat and pay the extra fuel charges. Outside, the hour was its normal self; inside, a woman stood facing Christmas alone for the very first time.
      Her sweaters were all in the upstairs bedroom, the thermostat in the hall downstairs. She’d turn it up, just for the next hour or two, just another degree or so, and wait downstairs for the plumber. Yet again that afternoon, she wondered about the plumbing bill. Was it a capital improvement, or a repair? Was she supposed to pay for the plumber’s time and send Joe only the part of the bill that was for new parts? A new part became part of the house. Unlike the heating oil, the repair itself would be an improvement. This business of what belonged to the house and what was—what had her lawyer called it?— “maintenance,” that subject had confused her both times he’d explained it, and she hadn’t wanted to ask again. Most likely, it would have done no good and would only have embarrassed her to show herself incompetent in yet another sphere of human endeavor; he’d already concluded she had no head for accounting.
      She flicked the plastic thermostat box open and moved the temperature dial up two degrees. Three. Better make it four; it comes on so slowly, and \the house is so immense. Through the panes in the front door she watched Mrs. Hannibal trip along behind her son. He had a furrowed brow and was furiously waving her off as she came after him, shouting and gesturing, their usual after-school row. Marilyn tilted her head, trying to see past them. The plumber was late, even by his own rough estimate. Between two and four. It was already past five. This was a new plumber, found in the Yellow Pages; the guy Joe used to call had just retired. He was never on schedule either.
      She walked back into the living room, hugging herself. In the center of the room she stood, turning slowly, taking inventory, once again, of the furniture. The curved sofa could seat five and the loveseat two, three if necessary. The oversized armchairs, four in all. Everything much too big. Joe always liked big pieces, not just the leather stuff in the den where he and his buddies huddled for the ball game, but all through the house. He wanted everything to be—another word she could never remember—“commodious.” Joe’s Ivy League vocabulary. Big furniture in a big house. “Too big for you,” her mother kept saying. “Sell the house, find a nice condo.” Her mother wasn’t the only one saying that.
      Joe had thought the girls’ rooms should have commodious furniture too. Double beds. They’re just children, Marilyn told him. But twin beds, Joe thought, seemed puny, uncomfortable. When they’re older, Marilyn once teased him, it’ll be easier for them to have boyfriends in their beds. She’d been joking, of course. Joe hadn’t seen the humor.
      She’d loved decorating the girls’ rooms, taking first Deb, then Janey, then even little Isabel downtown to the wallpaper shop and poring for hours through the huge unwieldy books, dragging home half a dozen and opening them all on the floor for the weekend. Then the matching quilts and curtains. Such fun having daughters, all those colors and fabrics, watching a room take on the character of the girl herself. Boys would never enjoy that sort of thing.
      Joe, of course, didn’t get that either. He got numbers: stock prices, bond quotes, futures. And basketball and football. Someday he’d have to explain to Isabel about the wider gap in ages between her and Janey, why Deb and Janey were two years apart while Janey and she were separated by more than six. Isabel would want to know. She didn’t understand yet, but someday she’d want an explanation. Marilyn would leave it to Joe to tell their youngest that she’d been his last shot at a boy, his failed Hail Mary pass.
      Marilyn found herself standing at the hearth again, tidying the Christmas cards, evening the spaces between them. This is when you find out who your friends are, now, when you’re cast down. Some of their friends sent out metallic-coated, preprinted cards every year, mechanically addressed according to a list they handed to their printer. Merry Christmas from The Grangers. Happy Holidays from The Porters. The capital T on “The,” people too busy to remove her from their lists. Other couples—those who actually addressed their cards themselves—had taken time to think it through. They had often as not decided against keeping her as a friend. A divorcée, no longer one of the crowd. Perhaps they’d decided to send the card to Joe. Joe was still the main support of their home and their daughters, and he’d soon enough have a girlfriend. Joe would go on being a couple, looking like a family. She would be the piece that had broken off.
      The plumber rang, impatiently it seemed. Marilyn found herself rushing to answer the door, thinking all the while that she should make him wait a bit.
      “Dan Kapinski,” the man said, putting out his hand as soon as she opened the door. “Sorry to be late. Never know what you’re in for in this business. "Freezing out there. Gonna be a hard winter, I think.”
      He had rough, grease-darkened hands, what you’d expect on a plumber, and the handshake transferred an oily smell to Marilyn’s hand.
      “Upstairs,” Marilyn said, indicating the staircase. “The showerhead fell off while I was showering. I tried to screw it back on, but the threads are gone on the pipe in the wall.”
      The man took off his cap as he entered, a politeness. Marilyn appreciated any sort of kindness, especially now.
      He started up the stairs. There was something strong and light in his step, not the trudging you so often see with workmen in these trades. The man seemed happy with himself and with his work and his day. Marilyn’s heart leapt a little to think of such a thing. Good to see someone carry a heavy box of tools, yet move so lightly.
      She watched him until he reached the top of the stairs. “To your right,” she called up to him. “Just outside the bedroom. The light is on.” She felt the impulse to hurry up after him but thought better of it. A strange, dirty man next door to her bedroom and she alone in the house. If the girls had been home, she would not have hesitated to follow him up and point out the problem. Everything was so awkward now; everything required so much thought, so much care. Care. That was the thing to focus on. Above all, do not be careless. A single woman, a divorcée, takes care at all times. It was an attitude that did not suit her. At least, it did not come naturally, not yet.
      Back in the living room, the Christmas cards had lost their sting and only stood there, lined up like red and green soldiers. Of course, most of the couples would desert her; she’d expected as much. “You have to move away,” her mother kept saying. “Move on. An apartment that’s cozy and efficient.”
      “The girls are in school here,” Marilyn would say in reply. “I can’t disrupt them now.” Her mother had no answer for that. Only “I just want what’s best for you.”
      “You should move into the city,” Rina, her best friend from high school, advised. Stalwart, steadfast Rina. Rina had never married, never borne babies, had no idea, really, of Marilyn’s life, everything she was losing in this divorce. But Rina did know what Marilyn was heading into, the life of the single woman. “You have to get out of the suburbs,” Rina said, certainty making her voice flat.
      Marilyn had the use of the house for as long as she chose to stay there; when she moved out, it would be sold and the profit split between Joe and her, after the down payment was subtracted for Joe. She could stay there for life, if she wished. Stay rent-free, pay only the expenses, the incidentals, whatever they turned out to be.
      “Get it over with,” Rina practically commanded. “The city’s the place for a single life. You need a new life . . .”
      Marilyn didn’t want a new life. That was the whole point, the whole entire problem. She wanted the life she’d lost. “The girls,” Marilyn tried to explain to her childless friend, “will be . . .” It was a difficult sentence to finish, a difficult phrase. “Visiting Joe.”
      “Visitation,” Tallefer had told her when the divorce negotiations began. Staying with Joe every other weekend, every school holiday, and half of every summer. At her first interview with him, he’d made it seem that she was about to receive a gift. A whole weekend to yourself every other week, all the long holidays. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter. You can travel, take a vacation with a special friend. Had he actually winked when he said that? “You have to stay calm. We’re heading into the rough waters, but just remember: You’re the mother; you get custody. All the rest is about money.”
      Marilyn had been very worried. Joe had a lot of money, and an expensive lawyer. He was pressing for custody of the girls. Since Izzie was born, he’d barely noticed them, and now he needed to be with them every other weekend and every school holiday too.
      “The bottom line is money,” said Tallefer. “They always ask for the world, throw the book at you. They want to soften you up, get you on your knees so you’re happy for whatever financial settlement you get. Don’t listen to him; it’s all about the money, just a lot of empty threats.”
      Joe’s talk was worse than threatening. It was abusive. She phoned Tallefer. Could he get Joe to stop phoning her?
      “Don’t listen,” Tallefer repeated. “You don’t want to get things overheated now. Just ignore it.”
      It wasn’t just the threats, the words he used. Joe’s voice itself was terrible on the phone. Marilyn had never heard him sound like that, ever.
      Dan was coming down the stairs, his step as light as when he’d gone up. He was whistling aimlessly. “Have to check the truck,” he said. “Need a new part. If I don’t have it, I’ll drive into town, see if the hardware store has it. I’ll be back one way or the other.”
      “Good,” Marilyn said. She heard the front door close behind him and felt a tiny lump of sadness at the house being empty again. It became empty so easily. It really was too big, a man’s house, full of Joe’s ball-game-watching furniture.
      No matter what Joe talked about, he had always had the smoothest, most mellow voice. It was the first thing that had drawn her to him, his voice. An encounter at the water cooler, of all things. A hello that had melted her, leaving her feeling embarrassed at her silliness. She could still remember that honeyed tone in his voice the night he slipped the straps of her nightgown down over her shoulders and, kissing her lightly all over, said dreamily, “Whaddya say we give it one more shot?”
      Well, of course, Marilyn had understood too perfectly. She’d huffed and puffed obediently through her first two deliveries, sticking bravely to the Lamaze protocol, but with Janey, she’d been almost sorry she’d stayed awake. The tiny flicker of disappointment that crossed Joe’s face—even in her fevered state, pushing out Janey’s placenta, she’d caught that. “It” would be Little Joe, the son you could toss a football around with, the son you could shoot baskets with, the future Eagle Scout. How could she refuse? For her third delivery, she’d asked for a little something to put her out.
      “This one’ll be a cinch,” Dr. Druce had said. “After one or two, the others all slide out painlessly.” But she couldn’t tell him about the hurt she was trying to avoid, the reason she hadn’t let the technician show them the sonogram three months earlier, the sting of seeing Joe’s face if this third child were not Little Joe.
      And that was their last shot. She’d fumbled the ball on their Hail Mary pass. Game over. Joe never said a word, just sort of faded out on her. Showed off Izzie with the usual pride, stood tall at the baptism, shaking hands afterward, kissing the aunts and grandmothers. But it was over for him at home. The office, the hedge fund, became everything. His firm and his ball-game nights with the guys and their golf junket to the Dominican Republic. All that lovemaking in the first ten years of their marriage—those gentle kisses on her face, her nose, her neck, her shoulders, everything the way she loved it—had been aimed at producing a son. Izzie had Joe’s dark complexion, his sturdy limbs, his deep-set eyes. She’d grow up to be an athlete, Marilyn felt sure. But, no matter. She wasn’t Little Joe. Someday, Izzie would understand that her mother had fumbled the final shot.
      “Got it!” Dan was back, letting himself in through the unlocked door. He came into the living room where Marilyn was, she suddenly realized, standing in the center of the too-big room again. He held up a bright chrome tubular object, seeming very pleased.
      “This’ll fix it for now. But then you and I will need to have a little talk. You gotta do something about the water in this house. It chewed away the threads on your pipe, even corroded part of the pipe itself. It’s doin’ the same thing to your body, ya know.”
      Marilyn clutched her hands to her throat. “What is it?”
      Dan was already bounding up the stairs. He called back to her. “C’mon up here. I’ll show you.”
      In the bathroom, he shone a flashlight up to where the showerhead had been. He told her the showerhead was okay, didn’t need to be replaced. But the water in this neighborhood had done this at other houses on the block. Harsh chemicals had rotted the pipes.
      “You’d best put in a treatment system. Down in the cellar. You don’t want to be drinking water that does this to iron pipes. Don’t want to be showering in it either. I can order the system for you. Takes about a week to come in.” He reached into his case for a wrench and began working at the pipe, what was left of it. “We’ll talk when I get done fixin’ this, okay?”
      Marilyn grunted and went back downstairs. A water treatment system was definitely a capital improvement. It was definitely on Joe’s tab. The thought of calling him to give him the news was horribly depressing. What if one of the girls answered? Sending business messages through their daughters? She would send an e-mail. Anytime she had business to transact with her former husband, it would be by written message. The rules for the rest of her life were falling into place.
      Maybe not. Maybe her appeal from that judge’s order would go in her favor. Tallefer thought not, said not to get any hope up. Go with the visitation as it is for now, he advised. Give Joe a chance to slip up. Men usually start messing up pretty early on. They find a girlfriend who doesn’t want the kids around, and they start missing visits. Then you can go in and move to amend the agreement. No, Marilyn had decided. If she acquiesced in this arrangement, the next judge would want to know why a perfectly good arrangement should be disturbed. This is how these judges think; she’d heard enough from them already.
      Tallefer explained that agreements are rarely amended so soon after the order is entered. The appeals court would note that the trial judge had heard all the testimony and had behaved herself. Herself. A woman judge. A woman judge with children had deprived her of her three girls for every family holiday until their adulthood. Unusually restrictive, but not unheard of, was how Tallefer put it. Still, he wouldn’t advise her to seek a change. Your husband’ll just outspend you again, he said. You picked yourself a bad apple when you picked that one. Joe had had the sweetest voice. Until that final bungle.
      She drifted into the kitchen and put up a pot of coffee, took the little bottle of rum down from the cabinet above the sink. A drop of rum in her coffee to take off the chill. She’d pulled on a heavy cardigan after Dan explained the showerhead to her, but the chill kept seeping through. The big house would never feel warm, not for any amount of money spent on fuel this winter. A spoonful of rum in her cup, no, two. Oh, a dribble from the bottle. It was terribly cold outside. Christmas cold, the kind that makes you grateful for friends and family.
      From the hall, the sound of Dan skipping down the stairs, whistling his vague, no-melody tune. Surely it was past the end of his workday. She liked a man who liked his work, good strong manual work. She called out from the kitchen. and he found her.
      “All fixed,” he said, pleased with his accomplishment. “Now, I gotta tell you about that water you have here.”
      Marilyn really didn’t want to hear it, the new equipment that would require getting through to Joe, maybe wishing him merry Christmas. He was taking the girls skiing for the holiday. Out to California to visit his folks and then up to Tahoe for skiing. How could they fail to adore him for that? How could she object to their visiting their grandparents? It was all arranged. The first Christmas after the divorce and he was taking them all to California.
      “Your water problem is easy enough to fix,” Dan was saying, “but it’ll cost you. The best treatment system—the only one, really, that I would recommend—will come to around a grand.” He lowered his head and peered up at her somewhat guiltily.
      Marilyn waved him closer to the table, gestured for him to sit down. “How about a nice hot cup of coffee before you go? It’s cold out there, you said so yourself. I have some Danish too, if you’d like.”
      “Thank you, that’d be nice,” Dan said. His hands, Marilyn noticed as he stirred his coffee, were even blacker than when he’d arrived, his ragged nails caked with grease. No marriage ring. A man in his forties, not more than forty-five.
      She got up and took the Danish from the white bakery bag on the counter, placed it on a saucer and cut it neatly in half. She set it down beside his coffee with a small folded napkin. Her chest was filling up, the warmth rushing toward her eyes. Soon they’d brim over.
      She sat down again, opposite him, and drew a sip of rummy coffee. “A thousand dollars? That’s a lot, I think.”
      “It’s what you need.”
      “Yes, I understand. It’s what the house needs, I suppose.”
      “It’s for your health.” He smiled and took a bite of the Danish. He had yellowed teeth. Probably he smoked.
      “Yes, well, can you do it next week? Before Christmas?”
      “Most likely just after, I’d say.”
      “Oh. Oh, after. Well then, can you put today’s work on that same bill?”
      “Actually, I’m going to have to have a deposit just to put in the order. I’ll need five hundred down. If you give me a check today, I can come back right after Christmas, most likely.”
      That would be something to look forward to: Dan’s return, his light step on the stairs, the sound of him whistling in the cellar as he worked. It must be a complicated device, something that would take a few hours to install. And then he’d have to test it out.
      “Right after Christmas then.” She went to the hall and found her checkbook in her purse, returned to the kitchen and wrote out the check. “Five hundred dollars. How is your last name spelled? Good. Some more coffee?”
      “No, but thank you. It was delicious, and so was the Danish. My mother bakes her own, and this was as good as hers.” He pocketed the check. “I’ll call when the system comes in, and we’ll set a date. Sometime right after Christmas.”
      She walked him to the front door, locked it after him, and flicked on the outdoor light so she could watch him make his way to the curb. He would return just after Christmas. The days between now and then slid neatly into place behind him.

Susan Pashman’s first novel, The Speed of Light, was published in 1997. She has since published stories and essays in such journals as The Portland Review, The Texas Review, and The Dan River Anthology. A new poem has just appeared in Burning Wood. She also contributes fiction occasionally to The East Hampton Star. A second novel is now with an agent in New York.

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