Delmar Poissant never, ever, got follow-up calls after a job was done. The call came at one-thirty in the morning. He reached out for the shiny black phone that he cleaned earlier that day before going to work. Even in the dark, with eyes closed, he knew precisely where the receiver lay cradled in the base. His dresser, where the phone was, was an arm's length away. On the dresser, aligned in perfect succession from right to left, each in its own territory, was pocket change in an ashtray which was cleaned and no longer used for butts since he quit smoking, silver nail clippers always placed perpendicular to the bed edge of the dresser, a plastic container for his retainer, a neatly folded clean handkerchief for the next day, his wallet, and a framed picture of him and Jill sitting in beach chairs on the deck at his parent's house on the lake.
The picture was taken by his mother a week before Jill moved out. As particular as he was about the objects on his dresser, Delmar couldn't yet bring himself to put that picture somewhere where he couldn't see it every day. In the month since Jill left, he looked at it every morning and felt powerless to fix her not being there, but he wanted to. He was not used to not knowing how to fix things. For a moment, as he brought the phone to his ear, he wanted to touch the picture frame with his finger tips.
"We have no vaahter!" yelled a voice on the other end that jerked his head away from the receiver as if he'd been slapped and set off a throbbing headache. Too many beers last night. Forgetting Jill. Not forgetting Jill. Jill threatening to leave. Jill leaving.
"We have no fucking vaahter!"
"No fucking vahter.", the voice calmer, more matter-of-fact.
Delmar mentally replayed the water heater job he did at the Petrowitz cottage late that afternoon. He must have forgotten to turn on the main feed from the well and the feed and supply valves on the new water heater after finishing . The valves were a prick to get to. 'Fuckin' butcher job' he thought to himself, blaming the shoddy original work he had to deal with that day to distract himself from acknowledging his own mistake.
The Petrowitz place was one of the many lakeside camps converted by their New York owners years ago from summer getaways into year-round homes, often by using unlicensed plumbers and slipping a couple of crisp hundreds to the building inspector. Delmar did not want to get in the truck and drive the seven miles to the north end of town to the top of Kivver Lake to turn on the water for Mr. Petrowitz.
"Mr. Pterowitz, can this wait till morning? I can come out first thing," sweeping back his mane of hair that had not been cut since Jill moved out. And since she moved out he had not been able to move smoothly through his work days with his mind completely on his work. He had a few near fuckups that he caught and straightened out himself since Jill left, more than he had for his entire fifteen-year career. 'I'm not one of your plumbing jobs! I don't want to be fixed. Don't you get it? Don't you ever listen? ' she blasted at him when she slammed the screen door in his face the day she left. This middle-of-the-night call was not a near fuckup, it was the real thing, but pretty harmless if it meant simply turning on three valves.
"Vee need vahter to taken shower." continued Mr. Petrowitz.
"Why the.." Delmar stopped himself from asking 'Why the fuck do you need to take a shower at one-thirty in the morning?' and instead asked meekly:
"So it can't wait till morning?"
"No. But I don't vant to bodder you. You tell Vitra how turn on vahter. Hokay?"
Great. Delmar could simply direct the old man and go back to sleep. He thought of movies in which a heroic character in airport ground control would safely negotiate a ten-year-old boy to a safe landing at a small, out-of-the-way airport after the pilot, the boy's father, had suffered a massive coronary. This wasn't nearly as serious, and he certainly wasn't up to heroics at one-thirty on Saturday morning, hung over with heartburn igniting in his belly. He sat up and swung his legs around to get his feet on the floor. He leaned over to resume the grip on his temples with one hand, resting an elbow on his knee. The other hand pressed the phone to his ear.
"You sure you can handle this Mr. Petrowitz?"
"I get flashlight. Hold phone" he replied. Delmar recalled there was a single ceramic light bulb fixture with a pull chain in the middle of the Petrwowitz cottage cellar. The bulb was burnt out. He did the water heater job using his floodlight stand. The Petrowitz phone plunked down on a hard surface and once again Delmar moved his receiver away from his ear. While waiting for Mr. Petrowitz to return, he slowly moved the receiver back within hearing distance as if he were handling a dangerous weapon. For quite a long time, there was no sound coming from the other end. Delmar looked up at Jill's picture. He regretted the confrontation with Jill. He felt himself inching toward a confession: he did not listen to her, he could be a 'vane, selfish prick'. He let the phone touch his ear. Then bang! Delmar stood up from the bedside and fumbled the phone.
"Hokay, Dat bulkhead door too heavy. I drop. I'm in cellar."
The only entrance to the Petrowitz cottage basement was the metal bulkhead in the back of the house. The cottage was originally built without a cellar. When some previous owner decided to dig a small, half cellar under the cottage, they never put in a door to the cellar from inside the house. The half basement was small and crammed with garden tools, a lawnmower, boxes of old glamour magazines that Mrs. Petrowitz once appeared in, old patio furniture, and the accumulated bric-a-brac of the Petrowitz's lives, all scattered on and around a small workbench. It was as if someone just tossed everything in there without a second's regard for order. When Delmar went to install the water heater, the disarray pissed him off because he had to move half of the stuff out through the bulkhead in order to install the new hot water tank.
"Mr. Perowitz? Are you ok?"
"I am in basement. Tell me where is valve, please," Vitra said, breathing heavily.
"Ok. Good. There are three valves you'll need to turn on. From the bulkhead, you want to go to the back left corner of the cellar first. That's where the main from the well is."
Delmar heard the old man panting and muttering the refrain 'back left corner, back left corner'. 'Jesus,' thought Delmar, 'the cellar isn't that big.'
"Hokay. Back left corner!" Mr. Petrowitz boomed into the phone like he was hailing a cab.
"Now, Mr. Petrowitz, the valve has a red plastic handle. It's a straight handle and it's parallel to the pipe that goes up to the ceiling."
"Parallel. Yes, I know parallel."
"Have you got it?"
"Hold phone. Flashlight no good."
Delmar hears what sounds like the old man slapping the flashlight in the palm of his hand over and over again. Mr. Petrowtiz was a barrel-chested veteran of World War II who, just that afternoon, had regaled Delmar with his tales of hand-to-hand combat in the Pacific and complained about all the heart medication he was on. At seventy-eight, he still had a handshake like a vise..
"I go get new batrees. Hold phone."
Delmar paces by his bed. He grabs his glasses and puts them on. The old man's portable phone acts as a microphone broadcasting the old man's actions. He can hear the old man stumble and kick his way through the cellar, muttering to himself, and he hears him ascend the wooden bulkhead stairs. He hears the metal bullhead creak open as Mr. Petrowitz grunts. Then a screen squeaks open and slams shut. There is the sound of a drawer opening and the shuffling of objects. Then a voice.
"Vitra. Ees vahter on yet? No? Why not?"
It was Mr. Petrowitz wife, Lana, a sixty-five-year-old blonde bombshell who still turned heads everywhere she went. She did not suffer fools gladly. She was the general in charge of the Petrowitz infantry and she never let him forget who was in charge. He would do anything for her.
"Soon dahlink. Soon. I must find batrees, please."
"In left drawer", she advised.
"No battrees sweetbuns."
"Then use candles my dahlink."
Delmar craved a cigarette, though he hadn't had one since he quit cold turkey at Jill's insistence. He noticed it was two AM. Mr. Petrowitz began speaking again as he headed back to the cellar with a box of wooden matches and a couple of little blue birthday candles Lana found in the cupboard. Mr. Petrowtiz was energized thinking about the nice cool shower he and Lana would soon enjoy on this oppressively muggy summer night that you made you sweat even in motionless sleep. A great pleasure of their golden years was showering together late at night and making love in the shower. The old man had told Delmar about this too the previous afternoon. He envied Mr. Petrowitz.
"Mr. Petrowitz, did you get some batteries?"
"No batrees. I use candles."
Delmar pictured the lawn mower and gas can in the half cellar that lay in the path to the main water valve. He heard what sounded like the old man striking a wooden match on the box of Ohio blue tips. He listened to Vitra shoving his way past the cellar's obstacles. 'Jesus' Delmar half cursed, half prayed 'not the gasoline'.
"I light birthday candles. Ha, ha! Hokay, I turn main valve. I hear water flowink. This is good!"
"Great," said Delmar. "Now all you need to do is open the water heater valves."
Delmar puts his glasses back on the dresser and lays back in his bed ready to finish the call. He lets the receiver cradle between his ear and shoulder. He rested his hands together on his belly like a body at a wake, and still wishes he had a cigarette. He misses Jill again. He wants her to call. He will call her in the morning. He will listen. He will only listen now. No more fixing. He pantomimed taking a nice, long drag on a Lucky Strike.
"Lana! Lana!" came Mr. Petrowitz's panicked voice louder than ever.
The phone clicked like an empty gun and went dead. He tried to decide if the call was over, if Mr. Petrowitz was ok. He wanted to go back to sleep. He wasn't sure how much time passed before he heard the fire horn blow downtown. A few minutes after that, the sirens of two trucks began to move into the night. He could tell the direction the sirens were travelling. North.
Delmar shot out of bed like it was infested with lice. He put his glasses back on, hurried to get his pants and shoes on and ran down to the kitchen for his truck keys. His chest tightened as he got closer to the sound of the fire trucks. He had the dream-like floating, suspended feeling a driver has when an accident you have no power to avoid is about to happen. Again he thought of Jill, as if she had something to do with this night. Did she curse him? Had he cursed himself by driving her away? Yes. He could freely admit it now. He drove her away. He made it impossible for her to stay. So he would have to fix it. He would have to change and it would be harder than quitting cigarettes. Delmar wondered why the fire trucks blasted their horns on the road to the lake at this hour when no one was on the road. Were they trained to do that or just rubbing it in that they were heroes? He gripped the wheel of his truck and let the worst of thoughts roll in: the cottage in flames with the Petrowitz's trapped in the cellar, the Petrowitz's burned to death — and it's his fault because he forgot to turn the fucking water on. Could this be a manslaughter charge? Would he get sued by their children and his life ruined forever? Would this have happened if he had been different enough for Jill to stay? His future did not exist beyond knowing what the hell happened to the Petrowitz's.
He slid his truck to a halt in the Petrowitz pea stone driveway. No flames. No fire. Not even smoke. He grabbed his flashlight and bolted from the truck and followed the fire hoses around to the back of the cottage. Two or three firemen, holding hoses that were shut off, looked up at him and were as casual as if he was seeing them at Benoit's Bar.
"Hey, Del. The old man's in the cellar."
Without a word, Delmar lowered himself through the bulkhead. He stepped over a garden hose that snaked into the cellar. At the bottom step, he followed the hose with his eyes to the corner where the water heater was and shined his light into the eyes of Vitra leaning against the wall, sweating, his shirt unbuttoned, Lana stroking the grey hair on his chest and the top of his head and two more firemen turning towards Delmar as if anticipating someone else. They all put up one arm to shield themselves from his light. Delmar lowered his flashlight.
"Is rescue squad?" piped up Mr. Petrowitz.
"No sweetbuns. It's the plumber," she said coldly.
Delmar approached them, banging a shin on a box, grimacing, leaning over to rub his shin, the firemen parting beside Vitra and Lana.
"Are you all right?" asked Dekmar.
"Vitra start fire with candle. I put out with hose straight away. I save house and Vitra. Vitra's heart not so good." She summarized the events with a passive matter-of-factness, a resignation, a fatigue. Delmar had his life back.
"All because you forget water!" she screamed full force, shaking her finger at him.
It didn't matter. It sailed right over Delmar's head. He had his life back. He had his life back. Tomorrow he'd get Jill back.