The Leak – Part II

3:00.  Do not ask for whom the bell tolls.  It tolled for me.

Will donned work boots and commanded me to leave the leak to him and to go about my day.  And I would gladly have done just that.  But I knew from grim experience the quickest route to the leak.  I knew he would need a gofer to run back and forth to the street to turn on and off the water and then into the kitchen to run the water through the fridge to take the pressure off the line every time we turned the water off.  He needed to take a towel, tape, scissors, his cell phone, kneepads, flashlight.  But mothers need to back off sometimes. So in he went. Cold turkey.

I waited.

Could I please turn the water off?

Indeed.  I was poised and ready, but I discovered a hitch.  The city had replaced the valve at the street and our convenient re-bar tool, a giant reverse screwdriver, no longer fit the valve head.  OK.  Vice grips.  From under the house, Will told me where they were and I trotted there.  Yes.  You are dead right. I am stove-up now from all this trotting and squatting.

Vice grips in hand, I approached the valve.  Had the valve been level and flat this story would lack a certain Facing-the-Giants element.  But the valve was a little tilted and at the bottom of a 6 inch deep hole.  So the vice grip handles couldn’t turn 1/16th of a revolution without hitting the sides of the hole, repeatedly knocking the pinchers off the valve, dinging my knuckles, and ruining the manicure I had gotten for Adrienne’s graduation.  It was a physics problem I couldn’t solve, and could have been the proverbial straw.  But here is where being a Category 2 came in handy and downright saved the day.

Remember, we 2ers weep over novels.  The novel I am weeping over right now is The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara.  When you finish reading this, go get a copy.  It is a glorious recounting of the battle of Gettysburg from both sides’ perspective.  And though I am a proud southerner and my gut twisted to know we were going to lose this particular battle, my admiration for Union General Lawrence Chamberlain literally knew no bounds.  The God-given idea to fix bayonets and charge down Little Round Top against all odds was breathtaking.

And so, when I managed to get the valve turned and the water off and to trot back and resume my prone position holding the flashlight and Will said, “Now I can’t tell exactly where the leak is anymore.  Could you turn the water back on?”  I was able to summon my inner Chamberlain and say, “Fix bayonetsCharge!”

I would do this 10 more times for various reasons until my trotting became walking, then listing, then limping, then staggering.  “Fix bayonets.  Charge,” I whispered on the tenth wrestle with the vice grips on the valve, knowing too that the grips were stripping the valve head down to the shiny metal and giving evidence of my bumblings.  I rubbed a little mud on it to cover mein kampf.

I found out later that my neighbor, watching my mud-covered, repetitious trips to the valve hole, thought I was planting a tree.

In the end Will patched the leak sufficiently that the duct tape is still in place and the hose hasn’t been replaced.

And Chamberlain and his Maine regiment have just been moved to the center of the Union line, right where the Rebel George Pickett is about to aim his noble charge uphill and exposed and utterly magnificent.

I am Chamberlain and Pickett.

And I am a Category 2!

The Leak – Part I

All people can be divided into two categories.  Psychologists may quibble with me on this, but it’s simple.  The first group sees a problem and says, “Here, hand it to me.”  Think of surgeons in the OR, generals under siege, camp-directors on the rainy day, and my husband.  The second group may or may not notice the problem, but if they do they give a distracted, “Hmmm,” and go back to weeping enthralled tears over their novel.  Good examples would be Christie Mulkey and me.

On rare occasions, a soul from Category 2 is forced into Category 1.

This is my story.

A cool May morning, my husband was out of town and I was at the family helm.  As a staunch Category 2er, it is remarkable that I even noticed the sound of running water as I stood in the kitchen at 7:25 a.m. on a gym-duty Tuesday, laden with the multiple bags required for one day of school.

Unbagging myself, I assumed the crouch and head-tilt of a tracker of the woods.  Silent.  Listening.  Homing in.  Here.  Yes.  Just here.  I pulled out the refrigerator and found the tracker’s equivalent of the broken twig and partial hoofprint.  No water was evident, but the sound increased – steady, not drippy but spraying.  It thrummed against something taut and echoey.

Resolving to pray that it didn’t get worse, I pushed the fridge back and headed on to school like any good Category 2er would.  God hears us because we need Him more than Category 1ers do.

 ~

A Category 2er can’t live with a Category 1er for 26 years, as I have, without some 1 rubbing off.  So I did have a sense of urgency as I returned from school around 1:00 and trotted up the back steps, game for the task ahead.  But the phone rang and it was Eliza.  So we chatted for awhile.  2ers respect the need for quality time.  Soon, though, garbed in grungy shorts (a mistake) and clunky shoes I opened the door to the crawlspace under the house and mentally heard Edna welcome me to hell.

We live in a long rectangle of the 1969 brick-rancher variety.  The crawlspace door is at the east end and the problem site was at the west end.  Also at the west end the crawlspace finally peters out into the garage slab.  So the space narrows of course the farther one crawls on one’s knees and belly into the lair of mole-crickets, meth cookers, and general boogeymen.

I confess here that I moaned aloud.  I did.  As I crawled I moaned.  And I laughed at myself and moaned more and became a little hysterical the farther I got in.  Dodging ductwork, cursing the builders for putting the ductwork just where I needed to go, I swung wide and homed in on the thrumming sound.  A healthy spray was coming from the ice-maker hose and hitting the tarps, filling the wrinkle troughs and making mud where the tarps didn’t meet.  It was a mess.

So I called Andrew from the inky depths.  Breathing heavily, trying to sound game on point, I said, “There’s no shut-off valve, so I call a plumber, right?”

He’s a Category1er.  1ers don’t call plumbers.  1ers become plumbers.

“Oh, no.  We can fix this ourselves.”

He said ‘we’ here metaphorically.  He was 400 miles away.

He continued, “You’re going to need to turn off the water at the street.  Dry off the hose. Duct tape it thoroughly.  And I’ll replace the hose when I get back.”

I think I blacked out at this point.

When I came to, I was crawling my way back out, around the ductwork, moaning, muddy, knees shredded and stinging causing me to wonder if some vile under-the-house chemical was entering my bloodstream.  I also wondered if any of the kittens had discovered the open crawlspace.  But I couldn’t worry about them.  They were on their own.  The circle of life and all.  The door spat me out heaving on the pine straw, and I lay there looking at the blue sky.  Life.  Birds.  I had survived.  But I would have to go back in.  Could I do it?

~

I would bolster myself with lunch and then make a plan.  My legs were like rubber because I had done a good bit of crouched-ape walking under the house before I realized that this was going to be a full-body slog.  I am embarrassed to admit that my hands shook, too.  Delayed claustrophobic response, no doubt.  So it is not surprising that when I reached overhead – I am a short person in a tall people’s world – to get the lemon squeezer dish, I bobbled it onto the tile floor and it shattered.  It is a testament to my fuddledness that my first item of lunch was a lemon.  But anyway, I stood muddy-legged and barefoot amid chunks and slivers of my lemon-squeezer.

I might have blacked out here, too.

In that dark moment, when I most needed an authentic 1er to walk in and say, “Here, hand it to me,” instead one of the first wasps of the coming summer hove in through the kitchen window.  Have you noticed how gigantic those early wasps are, and how malevolent looking their dangly things?  I had to pick my battles. So I ignored the wasp, swept, palsied, and dropped things, finally plopped some three-day-old slightly funky chicken salad on a plate and retired to the porch to meditate.

Under a house, I concluded, is an unnatural place.  It is like the dark side of the moon, literally unfit for the human life form and containing the embodiment of all fears.

I couldn’t face it alone.  I would wait for Will to get home from school.

Tea With Robert Burns

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Robert Burns and I met for tea at Flavors Bakery where the scones are without peer.  He hung his tweeds on the coat stand by the door, and I called to Janet that a spot of the Earl wouldn’t be unwelcome.  It was Robert, after all, so I was getting my inner Brit on.

“Good to see you, Annie,” Janet said.  “Earl on the way.”

I introduced myself to Mr. Burns with an American handshake, “Annie Proud.  Nice to meet you.”

“Robert Burns,” he returned.  “A true pleasure.”

Just back from a brief leave, I was interviewing Robert for the Arts and Culture weekend insert in our Garrett Gazette.  Neal, our editor, thought it would be a softball way to get my feet wet again, to get back on my game.  Neal had focused on the technical end of a journalism major and had avoided literature altogether.  He didn’t know much about the Scottish bard.

‘Charming’ was the word I jotted, as Robert pressed the plunger down to extract the essence of Earl Grey.  He accomplished the tea table in that rare masculine way that would set both farmers and lords at their instant ease.  No airs, but comfortable.  It helped to set me at my ease, not a farmer or a lord, but an anxious reporter with a deadline and a game face.

We exchanged niceties and utensils as we sugared and creamed and settled it all to our liking.  Then I began,  “So let’s start with Auld Lang Syne since the whole world sings it on New Year’s Eve.  Who did you have in mind when you wrote it?”

“Not one person in particular.  I was almost 30, mind you, and feeling old,”  Burns smiled here.  “I felt qualified to begin mourning for all that comes between us and precious things.  I had lots of starts and stops in my life.  Lots of failures.  In that song I think I turned back to remember and toast them all.”

Hearing him characterize his life as littered with failures was a new thought.  So I continued, “What about that song, then, do you think makes it so loved?”

Spreading soft butter on a cranberry shortbread cookie – “And why not?” I thought, saluting this stellar idea – he ventured a thought,  “We all have moments when we realize how little our times are, how those exquisite times, so very physical, are just memories now, how we’ve suffered much and our strength is diminished.  Even if I could go back, I haven’t the strength now.”  He paused.

I sipped and waited.

“And the best we have, all we have, Lass, is that cup of memories between us and the kindness of connection to each other.  That’s it.”

Refusing to allow any of his words to settle on the recent events of my life, I pressed him, “But what about Red, Red Rose?  You seemed certain in that poem that your love would last through an apocalypse, that you would never be separated from your love.  Or if you were, you would move the world to find it again.”

Robert was sitting back in his café chair, looking intently at me.  It occurred to me how rarely we actually do that with people.  It was way too intimate and uncomfortable.  He said finally, “So tell me about your knowledge of apocalypses.  You’ve had one recently, have you?”

Caught completely flat footed, and short of breath besides, the best I could do was stammer and deflect.  “My editor didn’t send me here to talk about me.  Let’s go lighter, then, and talk about the wonderful To A Mouse.”

He chuckled and said, “Well, only ‘lighter’ if you aren’t the mouse.  He’s homeless now from the farmer’s carelessness in destroying his ‘wee housie.’  It really happened, you know.  And I watched the desperate mouse, so cozy and prepared, you know, a moment ago, now exposed and on the run.  No hope of a warm home now before the real winter begins.”  He looked out at January through the tall windows behind me, at the reclaimed warehouses that housed this bakery and other specialty shops, and he said, “And I thought to myself, ‘The best laid plans of mice and men. . .’”

“Gang aft agley,” I finished for him.  Oh, how they gang agley and agley.

“Ahhh,” he smiled with pleasure.  “Even in this tiny corner of your fine country, you know my poems, and in dialect?  Humbling, indeed.”  He refilled both our tea mugs from the tall French press, and resumed casually, “So you understand the mouse, then?  Winter is coming on you and your cozy house has been flattened by a farmer’s plow?”

I didn’t try to deflect this time.  “Yes.  I understand the mouse.”

He held a finger up, “I’ll just go get us a few more of these cinnamon buns while you decide where to start your tale, right?”

My notepad still had only the one word on it – ‘charming.’  Janet evidently agreed as they talked animatedly about the perfect scone, Robert promising to send her his beloved wife Jean’s recipe.

“She informs me these are called cinnamon ‘rolls,’ not ‘buns,’” he noted as he placed the fresh rolls between us.  “Delightful girl, that.  I asked her to go back to Scotland with me, but she said her husband might object.  And what about my wife?  Well, what about her?”  Robert finished with a shout and a laugh.  His open joy was a kindness meant to help me find an opening.  Which it did.

“Your Jean was a patient woman,” I stated flatly.  I had read Burns’ biography.  Jean was beloved but not alone in his affections.  His face sobered quickly when he saw I had done my homework and knew a timeline of his life.

“It’s an unfair advantage you have over me, knowing my whole life,” he chided. “But I can’t call it unfair really, for the decisions were all mine.  Whatever it looks like all spread out in a row on paper, well, Lass, it was probably worse in truth.  But, why do you say Jean was patient?  She wasn’t particularly, you know.”

“She shared you, and stayed faithful.  No woman signs up for that.”

“I suppose I can see that now,” he mused.  “At the time, it just seemed my right to take what I wanted when I wanted it.  Would your man and I have gotten along well?”

“Peas in a pod.”

“And?” he prodded the air with half a cinnamon roll.

“Unlike you, my ‘man’ as you call him, never came back.  He took what he wanted and kept on going.”

“I am sorry for that,” Burns observed sadly.  “And are you truly left with nothing, like the wee mouse?”

“I have this job.  I have a wedding dress to sell – worn once, size 10.  And I have a due date.”

“Is that an American something?”

“No, Robert, it is a universal something.  Your Jean had several of them.  And so did Mary and Jenny and who was the other?”

He looked unapologetically at me, “Bess.”

“And Bess.  Only there’s nothing actually due on my date anymore.  I was standing in the driveway.  I felt it and I knew.  Instantly.  There’s no knowing like knowing that.  You cry and pray, ‘Hang on, babies, hang on.’”

He looked pierced, I knew, because he and Jean had twins.

“Yes, twins,” I confirmed.  “Two miracles.  But they were too little to hang on.  And there was nothing I could do.  I would have stood on my head for nine months if it would have helped.  I would have stopped breathing if necessary.  But Bobby drove away and I watched from the driveway.  And . . .I think three people died that day.”

Robert was silent for a long while, and then ventured, “Bobby?  That’s short for –“

“Yes, did I mention?  My husband’s name is Robert.  Robert Proud, of the Garrett Prouds.  His father is Cainer, the lawyer.  His sister is Cainer, the princess.  I had a fairytale, and now it’s over.”

He remained silent and thoughtful, then spoke, “I am bereft for your babies.  That is a roaring sea, indeed.  Might I hope that someday you will be glad to be rid of the Prouds?  You will find an honest man, a man of gold, and he’ll be your true prince.”

I couldn’t help but smile at him and quote, “For a’ that, and a’ that, Their tinsel show, and a’ that; The honest man, though e’er sae poor, Is king o’ men for a’ that.”

“I had a way with words, didn’t I?” he laughed softly.

“You did, indeed,” I agreed.  “But I’ll need more than love and memories to get me through this, Mr. Burns.”

“And I hope you find it, dear Lass.  I wish I could tell you what that might be, but you know, I only lived to be 37.  So I’m not much of an expert.  Do you think Janet has something we can put these buns – rolls – in and take along on our way?”