It’s 3:40 a.m. Once again I can’t sleep, so I crawl out of bed and wander into the kitchen. I flip on the light and groan when I see the clogged sink. At dinner I’d stuffed cabbage leaves down the disposal, and the water hadn’t drained.
Reaching under the sink, I pull out the stair-step gizmo taped to the disposal. When I insert the little tool, it does its circular whirl and the disposal emits its normal growl. I grab the plunger, shove down hard, and yank up. The suction slurp sounds loud enough to uncork a sewage line, but those cabbage leaves hold fast. It’s clogged, and that’s that.
Before last April, when my father died of pneumonia, I would have told him about the broken disposal during our daily conversation. Though he lived 2,000 miles away in Oregon and at ninety-three was in no condition to fix things, he still liked talking about machinery. He would often ask, “How many miles does your car have on it now?” I’d cringe, vowing to myself that I’d check that darned odometer before our next call, and then I’d confess I didn’t know. Yes, my broken disposal would have grabbed his interest. He would have said, “Well, the dickens. That’s too bad.”
As I stare at the floating cabbage, I long to hear “the dickens.” That and the “Good-bye, sweetheart,” he started saying at the end of our conversations after my mother died. Sometimes, when our talk was winding down, I’d say, “I love you bunches.” He’d reply, “I love you even more bunches,” and I’d tell him, “You’re a bunch ahead of me this time.” And then he’d giggle.
When I return to bed, it’s 4:27 a.m.. I close my eyes and start to relax until I think: The condo board meeting’s at my place this week. Oh, no, I’ll have to fix a snack. But what?
My father worried about my kitchen skills. Once he asked if my not knowing how to cook had caused my divorce. When I said, “No, Mel liked doing the cooking. We were just growing in separate directions,” he frowned. My divorce was confusing to him; he was married to my mother for fifty-nine years. They loved each other and made things work. Till death did them part.
I stare at the ceiling. With no children, siblings, or spouse, I ponder if anyone I love will be with me at the end.
The next morning my friend, John, in Maryland calls. We talk daily. We’re not “involved,” though we used to be—sort of. We’ve agreed we’re more than friends, but with his move last year, it couldn’t be more, even if it was.
When John asks what I’m doing, I tell him my sink has turned on me. “Do you think it would unclog if I just poured Drano into the cabbage water?” I ask him.
“First, tell me about the layout under your sink,” he says. He can fix anything.
I study the layout. “There’s a pipe a couple inches down from this round metal thingy at the top of the disposal.”
“Does the pipe lead to the trap?”
I run through all the “traps” in my repertoire and see nothing under the sink that looks like any of them. “The pipe from the disposal leads to a pipe under the other sink that goes straight down to a loopy pipe,” I tell him.
“The trap,” he says.
“Yes, the trap.”
“Better not use Drano. How is the pipe attached to the disposal?”
“With some kind of bolt thing.”
“I’ll bet the cabbage is trapped at the sleeve of that discharge tube,” he says. “If you had a channel lock, you could remove the clamp.”
I don’t admit I’ve never heard of a channel lock. Instead I say, “It sounds too hard. I’ll just call the repair number on the disposal.”
“It’s not hard at all. I wish I were there. I’d fix it in no time.”
“If wishes were fishes,” I say. I don’t add: “Well, if you hadn’t moved, you would be here.” The fact I want to say this tells me I’m not over his leaving. But getting there, I tell myself.
My father, in his last months, told me repeatedly he couldn’t sleep. He needed to move back over the eleven miles of winding mountain road to Mist, Oregon, where he’d lived for eighty-five years. Where he’d been a logger and a saw filer in the mill, with words like “gang saws” and “chipper knives” and “board feet of lumber” as his daily vocabulary. Where he and my mother had lived out their married life until her heart problems necessitated their moving closer to the hospital.
“I can’t sleep in this place. I think it’s the altitude,” he told me.
“You mean The Amber?” I said, referring to the assisted living facility I’d moved him into a few months before. I hoped it wasn’t yet another way that that facility was unsatisfactory when compared to the little rental house where he and my mother had lived for four years after leaving their home in Mist. And where he’d been for the last three years since her death.
“This side of the mountain, period,” he said. “I’m thinking of buying a trailer and moving back over the mountain.”
“You can’t do that,” I said. “Who’ll lift your legs into bed at night?”
“I don’t need help.”
“You can’t get in bed by yourself after you go to the bathroom,” I told him. “That’s why I started hiring people to stay with you at night. Remember?” I reminded him that the Mist Store had burned the year before, removing the only establishment in the town of fifty, and that he no longer had a car or a driver’s license.
He was quiet a moment. “Well, what about if you moved back with me? I’ll pay you whatever you’re making to take care of me.”
I thought about my friends in Iowa and the advising job I loved at the university. I would go crazy, leaving my life behind; after my divorce, it had taken me time to feel connected.
“I just can’t sleep here,” he said again. “And I always slept well in Mist.”
“I’m sorry, Dad, but I can’t move back.” A sudden memory came to me from childhood: of Dad’s letting me climb aboard his slippered feet then walking me to the bathroom in the night. “I’ll talk to the people in The Amber and see if we can’t find a way to help you sleep better,” I told him. “And I’ll be there in just two weeks for Christmas. I can’t wait to see you.”
When I hang up from talking to John, I call the 800 number on the side of the garbage disposal. After going through a maddening phone tree, I reach a man whose first question is, “What’s the model number on your disposal?” Telling him to hold, I kneel by the disposal, bend my neck at an impossible angle, and search frantically until I finally spot it. “Oh,” he says, when I tell him the number. He asks if I’ve tried using the service wrenchette or a plunger.
“I tried the plunger and even the stair-step bar under the sink.”
There’s a pause. “Yes, the service wrenchette,” he says. Finally he relinquishes the phone number and location of the nearest repair center.
I hang up, mad at the generic systems he represents—all the systems I dealt with as my father grew older and more confused about a world that no longer made sense to him. Phone trees without an option for what you need. Companies that prey on the elderly and vulnerable.ÊÊ
Protecting my father from those systems after my mother died was one of my biggest challenges. I was forever telling Reader’s Digest: DON’T SEND ANY MORE MATERIALS TO MY FATHER!! He insisted that he hadn’t bought anything and was only entering their contest, and he couldn’t imagine why he’d received their “un-free” book. How could they not be on the up-and-up? After all, he’d subscribed to their magazine for years.
And all the cheaply made free gifts he received—the watches he showed me and the tiny bags of “gems” he proudly bestowed upon me whenever I flew out. The things that kept him going. Those damned companies, never giving up, sending all their crap. And my father, trying to stay cheerful in the wake of losing Mother, assuring me every time I called, “I’m doing pretty good.”
When I call the repair center, I’m relieved to connect immediately with a woman who promises me that their serviceman will be at my place at 8:00 a.m. tomorrow. It’ll be sixty dollars for the visit and thirty minutes of service. This seems like a lot, but I tell myself it is a family business, not a big company.
John calls that evening, and when I tell him the garbage disposal people will charge sixty dollars, he says, “Good God. I know you can fix it. You said the disposal made its regular sound, right?”
“Yes, and the self service wrenchette makes a complete turn.” I wait for a word of praise for my terminology savvy, but he only says “hmm,” then offers again to walk me through the process. I don’t want to pay sixty dollars, but I feel anxious about taking the disposal apart. What if I couldn’t get it back together? I would have set its demise in motion and the sink might never be the same. “That’s all right,” I tell him. “Thank you, though.”
That night I’m tired and go to sleep quickly, but at 4 a.m. something awakens me. I get out of bed, still with a light step for someone in her sixties. Actually, it’s a light step for fifty or forty. The difference is that at younger ages, I wasn’t thinking: It’s a light step. I just stepped. I miss just stepping.
I kneel by the window that faces out on the wall of the next condo. I think of my father’s bedroom window in the assisted living facility and him unable to sleep. I wonder what he thought about, lying there. Did he worry about dying? Did he enjoy the row of firs on the hilly incline, and did it make him think of the forest where he’d grown up?
I visualize the trees across the water from The Amber. After my father moved there, I pointed them out to him on several occasions. “That row of trees is pretty, isn’t it,” I’d say, sounding falsely perky even to my own ears. He would nod with little enthusiasm. I tried to comfort myself that at least he didn’t have to look at a wall of bricks, like those outside my own window.
A logger friend of my father’s tried to dissuade me from moving him to an assisted living facility. At the point I made the decision—when my father was falling frequently and the complex caretaking system I’d set up was breaking down—his friend said, “Your father won’t last a year in that place.”
Those words haunted me when I got the call last April, the morning before I was supposed to fly out to be with him. The caretaker who phoned me said, “Marian, he couldn’t wait for you to get here. The hospital just called.” She was crying.
“Oh, no,” I said, crying, too. “Do you think he knew I loved him?”
The next morning I have my alarm set for earlier than usual. I eat a hurried breakfast and wait, but the garbage disposal man doesn’t come. When I contact the company, the woman apologizes, saying she’ll be sure to have him there the next morning.
I hang up, irritated. “I wish people would do what they promise,” I say aloud, then have to laugh. I sound like my father, a man of his word even to the end. The Christmas before he died, he tried to warn me he wouldn’t see me again. Recuperating from a recent embolism, he called me into his bedroom where he’d been taking a nap.
I sat by his bed with apprehension: He’d never liked talking things over. “If I die after you return to Iowa, would you come back?” he asked.
“Do you mean for the funeral?” I tried not to panic.
“Yes.” His voice was weak.
“Well, of course,” I said. “But I don’t want you to think that you’re not getting better. I can tell, since I got here a week ago, that you’re gaining strength. You know, not many people survive those embolisms. You’re doing very well.”
He nodded without conviction. “Would you be all right?”
I wanted to say, “No, I wouldn’t be all right. I don’t want you to go. I’ll be alone in the world, my biggest fear.” But I knew I couldn’t say that. Wasn’t I the one who believed that people should communicate? Should tell the truth?
I hesitated, trying to figure out what the truth was. Finally I said, “I don’t want you to die. I would miss you terribly. But I have friends and loved ones who would help me. I would be all right.” We sat in silence for a few moments in the growing dusk. I tried to keep my sniffs quiet.
Then he looked at me. “Do you have a cold?” he asked.
Before I turn off the kitchen light for bed that night, I check the sink. The sixty-dollar-an-hour disposal guy hopefully will show up tomorrow at 9 a.m., and I make a last stab at clearing the clog. I use the plunger, the wrenchette, and a few curses. But nothing works. I stare at the metal drain, beneath which lies the machine that eats my garbage. A simple device compared to rocket ships and computers. Yet it has me totally flummoxed.
Why didn’t I learn about the physical world from my father when I had the chance? He kept us afloat in our isolated community when the electricity went out for days or when the pumps broke. As an only child, I fell heir to being his helper, but I never paid attention to how things worked. I just did what he told me. I pulled up the buckets of dirt when he and I dug our well; I held tools for him when he fixed the pumps; I helped him gather the winter wood. I even helped him log a little, with him setting chokers and me driving the cat.
He tried his best to pull me into his world, but nothing he said could convince me of its value. On one occasion, he asked me how many gallons of water our dishwasher pumped a minute. When I was clueless, he said, “What will you do when a teacher asks you that question?” I shrugged and said, “Tell her I don’t know,” then walked nonchalantly out of the room. But I couldn’t help but feel I’d let him down.
My fight with the garbage disposal has made me tired, and once again I fall asleep quickly. But I awaken an hour later, wide-eyed. I look out into the night and think of growing up in Mist, where the only night sounds were the coyotes. Waking to their eerie yips was oddly comforting, knowing they were at home out there in those dark woods while I was nestled safely under my blankets. My father had listened to their voices for eighty-five years. No wonder in those last months he wanted to go home.
I toss right and left and know I won’t get to sleep, so I crawl out of bed and make my way to the kitchen. I flip on the light and glance into the sink—then do a double take. The water has drained. I turn on the faucet and the sink fills again, but I know something’s loosened. I grab the plunger, push down, release with a sploosh, and again, push, release, sploosh. The sink drains. I flip the disposal button; the water runs down the drain and keeps going.
I smile at the empty sink and think about what I would say to my father if we still had our daily conversations. I wouldn’t tell him about the repair guy who failed to show up, or the conversations with my kind-of friend, or the fact that I’d discovered the drained sink during my nocturnal wanderings when I couldn’t sleep. Those things would only worry him.
Instead I would tell him, “I used the wrenchette and plunger, but those didn’t help. You see, the water wasn’t flowing through the trap, and as I didn’t have a channel lock, I couldn’t remove the clamp. But the cabbage loosened miraculously by itself and now the water’s back to running at its usual 2.5 gallons per minute.” And my father would say, “The dickens,” and I could tell by his voice that he was proud of me. And I would say, “I love you bunches,” and he could tell by mine that I’m all right.
published fiction in Story Magazine and The Sun, and nonfiction in Anthologies, Dutiful Daughters, and Ghost at Heart's Edge. For the
last twenty years she has worked as an academic advisor at The University of Iowa. She's currently at work on a screenplay.