LYNN SCHWARTZ


Snake

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 to do.”

“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.

“Perhaps, you could tell me what to do,” I say. “Show me how to use those tools.”

“Show you,” 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.

Sam examines 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.

Sam’s fingers 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?”

Uncertain, I 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 didn’t stay.

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.

“Lady, it’s 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 from looking.

“What in the hell did you do?” he says with vigor.

“I don’t know,” I whisper.

“You dropped 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.

It’s lilac, 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.

“Closer,” he 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.

“Just relax,” 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.”

Sam’s words 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 placed.

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.

Sam attacks 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.

“You really 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?”

Sam doesn’t 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 breathing heavy.

I watch.

“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.

“Don’t know,” 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.”

“Forget about it now,” Sam says, faintly, ignoring my growing courage. “We’ll wait and see.”

I cannot wait; this has gone too far. It’s better to know, to get it out. Once and for all.

“Like I said, Lady. We’ll wait and see.”

“No,” I say. “You said that snake would find the trouble.”

“There’s nothing 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.

"Wait,” I press.

“Look, it’s 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.”

Something comes 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.”

“There’s nothing to see,” Sam says.

“Hand me the snake.”

“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.

“Watch me,” 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.”

“But Lady,” 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 the tub.

“There’s nothing down there,” he says.

“You’re wrong,” I tell him. “Something’s coming out.”