We are standing
in my bathroom, standing in water. He is fixing the toilet. I’m there
beside him, in a room designed for me only, thinking I don’t know
what to do. So that is what I finally tell him. “I don’t know what
“Of course you
don’t know.” His pronouncement is final. Casting me off, forever,
into that useless group which will never learn to wield a plunger.
could tell me what to do,” I say. “Show me how to use those tools.”
he repeats. He is dark, unshaven and in my small bathroom he seems
mighty. You would have to examine him closely to realize that he is
not a large man, very middle-aged. His words sound rough to me, delivered
with a calculated snarl.
This man should
not be here with me like this. Circled by tools, crusty metal things,
tools that have names I do not know. “I’d like to learn to do this
myself,” I say louder. I keep my head lowered, my eyes on the floor.
“Lady,” he growls.
“What are you going to do with tools? It’s best to stay out of the
way.” He calls me “Lady” or calls me nothing at all. I have asked
him more than once to call me Kimberly, but it is always, “Morning,
Lady” or “Lady, hello.” I call him Sam.
“All this stuff
on top of the tank,” he says. “What is it?” Sam’s gruff manner is
full of purpose.
“Soaps,” I say.
There are seashell soaps, scented soaps - mostly lilac. The ones that
come in distinctive wrappers, delicate foreign papers, soaps not designed
for cleaning, wrappers that you shouldn’t ever open.
the soaps lined across tank. “This is a hazardous thing,” he informs
me. “You’re going to have to move them.”
I do what Sam
says. Self-consciously, I fill the tub with my special soaps - cover
the tub bottom with brightly colored seashells.
are streaked with black stains. Black from all the other bathrooms.
Black that is ground in past the skin, the kind of blackness you can’t
wash out. Those inky fingers lift the lid off the tank.
I can’t remember
what is under that tank lid. Truthfully, I have never cleaned in there.
What if he finds something in the tank? Something I’ve forgotten.
Sam starts wiggling,
jiggling parts inside the tank. He is telling me things too. Telling
me how he doesn’t let his wife leave anything on the counter, how
she was always dropping lipstick and mascara into the bowl. He had
to build her a special shelf. “This would never happen at my house,”
he says. “My wife knows better. I’ll tell you what. I’m going to show
you just like I showed her,” he says. “You understand?”
nod. I’m not a person to make a fuss. “I’m sorry for the trouble.”
His body blocks
the door so I can’t get out. I do not want him to think I am alone.
I open my mouth to call - to call out to someone, perhaps a spouse
in the next room, but Sam knows I cannot call. He knows the husband
What I propose
to him is this, “How can I help?” Sam looks up, stares at my white
terry-cloth bathrobe and unmade face. He is annoyed with the interruption.
I look away. His eyes, carbon, moonless, inspect me for a good while,
for much too long; then he dismisses me without comment.
“I need to get
dressed,” I say.
six in the morning, this ain’t no fashion show.” Sam’s pants are charcoal,
covered with something that I think might be grease. There is no belt
and his pants hang too low. I can see little white lines across his
hips, stretch lines, the kind you usually see on fat flesh, and when
he bends I see more flesh I shouldn’t see - this does not stop me
“What in the
hell did you do?” he says with vigor.
“I don’t know,”
something down there.”
“No.” I protest.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Let me explain
something to you,” he says, laying down the law. “I’ve seen a lot
of plumbing trouble, and I’m telling you, this kind of thing doesn’t
just happen. You must have done something.”
“Not that I
can think of.” My words have lost conviction. I wonder what he has
seen in all those bathrooms. I suspect he can tell a lot about a person
from their bathroom.
my bathroom. Everything is carpeted in curly lilac. The floor, the
walls, the toilet, the wastepaper basket. Everything. I like to cover
things. Now, everything is just covered with wet. A thick kind of
wet, a murky wet that oozes into tiny places.
“I’ll wait in
the living room,” I say.
Sam says no.
Sam says to watch. “Time you learned about these things.” I do what
he tells me. I sit on the bathtub - right on the edge.
says. “You can’t see anything from over there.” I move closer. “I
want you to watch real careful,” he instructs.
So here we are
together, together in my bathroom. Looking. Looking into the bowl.
“Maybe I can get you a beverage,” I offer.
he says. “I’ll go through it slow. Until you understand. Let’s see
what we find.” Then he adds, “Let’s see what you did.”
make me shiver. When he puts the plunger into the water I think about
what he might dig out. Piles and piles of filthy, putrid things -
things you couldn’t touch. Things you couldn’t say out loud. But worst
of all, things that would be mine.
From where I’m
perched on the tub, I can see through the door to my living room.
I try to focus on the stacks of expensive magazines neatly lined across
the bottom bookshelves. Interiors of the world. Glossy photographs
of well-composed rooms. On those nights when sleep won’t come, I examine
the pages for design details.
Hidden in these
pages are walls covered in silk, two 17th -century Flemish chairs,
a majolica dish, gilded frames full of family photographs, and sometimes,
pillows covered with pieces of antique Aubusson rugs. Everything carefully
It is the lighter,
airy rooms that I cut out from the magazines; favorite images snipped
squarely and taped neatly on my bedroom wall in the middle of the
night. Photographs of breezy bedrooms. White gauzy linens strung casually
from the bedposts. Wooden window shutters slightly ajar, ceiling fans,
floor tiles - large and ivory.
I am easily
transported into these rooms. Once there, I pull apart the plantation
shutters to reveal a transparent turquoise sea. It is then that sleep
comes, washing over me with soft, warm waves.
the bowl with the plunger. He smacks again and then again against
the porcelain bottom. The bowl spits water at me across the floor.
But nothing more. He tosses the plunger at my feet.
did it,” he says. “Got to be pretty nasty.”
Then, he stops
and looks right at me. “Any of that other stuff, Lady?” he asks. “You
put any of that other kind of female stuff down here?”
wait for my answer; he puts one of the metal tools, the long curvy
one, down into the bowl. He crowds me so I can barely breathe. I know
what this kind can do. The kind that finds the trouble but then leaves
the mess. The kind that yanks and rips and pulls at hidden things
- things that were covered for a reason.
“Ever seen a
snake before?” Sam asks, nodding toward the metal tool.
“No,” I say.
“Now, I’ll show
you, “ he says. Sam manually winds the old snake down into the bowl.
“The snake will
always find the trouble,” he assures me. “Now we’ll see what you’ve
done,” he says again, this time under his breath.
But we don’t
see. Sam is over the bowl with the snake for a long, long time; until
my room, my bathroom, ceases to be mine. The lilac scent is gone.
I stare at the
bowl, right into it. I have no choice now; I must see what’s down
there. The snake keeps winding until I think we’ve got to find something
- until I know the trouble is coming up. But there is nothing. The
snake slows. Sam can’t make it turn easily anymore. He sweats, his
“I don’t know,”
he whispers. “Don’t know what you could have done,” now just perplexed.
Sam is weary.
He forces his soiled hands to strangle that snake for one last laborious
try. The snake pushes farther down. Together they slowly wind for
a few moments more, then they stop. A dead stop - there is nothing.
he says, his voice full of fatigue. “Don’t know.” Sam tugs the snake
out, slowly, resting its heavy stem in the tub amongst my seashell
soaps. “Guess that’s it,” he says, quiet, resigned. “Whatever it was,
it isn’t coming out.”
He takes several
minutes to arrange the smaller tools into a box and then starts to
drag the snake out the door, out of my once lilac bathroom.
I say, “Wait.”
I say, “That
is not it.”
it now,” Sam says, faintly, ignoring my growing courage. “We’ll wait
I cannot wait;
this has gone too far. It’s better to know, to get it out. Once and
“Like I said,
Lady. We’ll wait and see.”
“No,” I say.
“You said that snake would find the trouble.”
to be done,” Sam says. “I’ve tried everything.”
“I want the
trouble out,” I say.
“Lady, you know
so much, go ahead, see what you can do.”
I stare at the
snake resting near the door. Sam smiles, satisfied by my hesitation.
just one of those things,” says Sam, sounding patronizing again.
“Try a little
harder,” I insist. “Dig a little deeper.”
“I can’t,” Sam
says. “There is nothing down there.”
“Hand me the
snake,” I command.
My tone throws
him off. “I wasn’t serious,” says Sam, trying hard to be harsh
now. “Lady, there is nothing you can do.”
up from inside of me, a hidden strength rising up from the gut. “Hand
me the snake,” I challenge him. Face to face. Eye to eye.
Sam makes an
effort to smile hoping I will join him. “Whoa, Lady! This is crazy,
I was teasing a little, that’s all.”
“You have something
to show me . . . let’s see it. I want to see it now.”
to see,” Sam says.
“Hand me the
“Lady, the truth
is, I don’t know what else to do.” His admission comes out weakly.
“I know,” I
say. “Hand me the snake.”
Sam will no
longer look at me. I jerk the filthy stem from him. The rough-surfaced
tool scrapes over his hands, slicing the tender side of two soiled
fingers as it settles into my fierce grip. Sam gasps, clasps his hands
together. The slit I have inflicted cuts deep. He moves his mouth
to nurse his red wound, silent, stunned. I pause, startled by the
injury I have committed; then, not wanting to lose my way, clumsily
maneuver my unwieldy weapon into the bowl.
I say. “I’ll show you what you’ve missed.”
“But, Lady .
. .,” Sam keeps his head low, concentrating on his injured hand.
I don’t let
him finish. “Sit down,” I say, “I want you to pay attention.”
Sam says, confused. Like a small boy I might reassure. Tell him he’s
a good boy, a smart boy. Kiss and comfort. Soothe him with words.
But I don’t. He’s gone too far, pushed too hard.
“You sit for
now,” I say. “I’ll dig it all up now. Right now.”
Sam wipes his
bloodied hand across his cheek, then sits cautiously on the edge of
down there,” he says.
I tell him. “Something’s coming out.”