How I Personally and Perhaps Finally Broke Bad, and Yes, the Names Have Been Changed Because I Am Not Exactly a Dolt


In the course of about four hours I encountered a scorpion in my cat’s litter box, a cockroach in my car, and a coral snake – the kind with the head so teeny that you think it’s missing – on my front stoop!

If I were some kind of badass, I’d assume this was a major warning from a gang or something, but the fact is, I’m not a badass at all. I’m a 76-year-old woman with too much furniture in the house, a cat, and an overweight dog. I drive an 18-year-old Toyota Camry and last week I bought my first African violet.

Seriously.

I am binge-watching Breaking Bad, though, and I’ve learned a lot from the show. Learned from Skyler, the wife of Walter White, the main character. Like I’ve been trying to get on the schedule to have my swimming pool drained and refilled for weeks because it got a bunch of dirt in it after a big rainstorm and then algae on top of that, and the pool people kept putting me off because I’m only down for once-a-month service and a lot of people were ahead of me. With Skyler in mind, I canned my usual angry rant and instead went into this really confidential voice and told the male receptionist (a guy with a nose ring and unnaturally red hair on – get this – just the left side of his head, total demarcation, bald on the right), “Listen. I am 76-years-old and my son and daughter-in-law are coming here on Saturday and if they see the pool looking this way, they will use it as an excuse to put me into assisted living. So you see, it’s really, really a huge deal for me.”

I do have a son and daughter-in-law but the chances of them ever visiting are minimal if not nil. The last time I saw my son was Mother’s Day and he only stayed until the beer I’d bought was gone. She didn’t even bother to come.

But it worked. The pool guy, Matt, is here right now and the water is almost all the way gone.

Meanwhile, I know you are wondering why a cockroach would be in a car. This was a new wrinkle for me, too, but I think it’s because I had an open 25-pound bag of black oil sunflower seed strapped into the rear seat. I’d been meaning to bring a couple of clothespins out to really close the bag, but I kept forgetting, and the cockroaches, I think, can smell that kind of thing. It hadn’t been in there long, but it doesn’t take a cockroach long to figure out where there’s a meal waiting for him. Or her.

Which has to make you wonder about the dozens of people you know – I am definitely not one of them – who have fast food wrappers and pizza boxes with crusts still in them and empty Coke cans all piled up on the passenger seat, the people who say, “Wait a minute,” just before you get in so they can move their mess to the back seat so you can actually sit down. I ask you: Why would a roach come to my otherwise pristine little Camry instead of to the rolling garbage of their serial killer cars?

(And yes, I did read somewhere that disorganized killers, I think they’re called, have cars that are messy that way. I think it was a book by a shrink or an FBI profiler or maybe both. I think the title was something about looking into an abyss. It had that word abyss in the title.)

 

So now Matt is here. I don’t know if the other guy who answers the phone down there told him my assisted living story, but I decided not to go out and say hello just in case he would look at me funny and watch to see if maybe I really did need to be in a more “structured setting.”

Not me, thank you. My mother was in one of those places right here and the Hollyhock Court staff had to take the phone books out of the rooms all over her floor because, every chance she got, she kept calling movers to come and pick up her stuff and take her back to Waukegan (which is strange, since she always said it was too cold there).

I really and truly would have thought she’d like it better being in a place where she had people to talk to and things to do, but now that I’m old and alone the way she was, I sort of get it. I don’t want to leave my house, really. I wouldn’t even go to the grocery store if I didn’t have to. When people stop and talk to me, I acknowledge them politely, but keep moving so that it doesn’t turn into a real conversation. I don’t even know why.

And what they say about nutrition, you know, for old people, is pretty true. Yesterday I ate a pint of vanilla ice cream with half and half poured over it and then, because of the sudden need to counteract the sweetness, had half a bag of pretzel sticks. In fact, I fell asleep eating pretzels and you can’t believe the mess I had to clean up. Not just chunks of pretzel, but salt everywhere. I brought the dog in and put him on the bed, but he didn’t scarf everything up, so in the end I had to drag the vacuum cleaner out. It’s still in the bedroom.

Being on your own is living the way you want to live, without anyone harping about how you should or shouldn’t be doing this or that. Within the limits of your finances, of course.

I get $1,369 in Social Security and $247 from a pension. If I had more money, I would heat the pool in winter when it gets too cold to swim. I bought a wetsuit, but when I tried it on, I got kind of panicky inside it even though my head was not covered by anything, and I was so panicky that I could barely get the zipper down even though it was right there in the front like a body bag. I was pulling and kicking and twisting so bad that I fell down and so I just gave up on the idea of swimming through the winter even though I got out of the wetsuit eventually and it didn’t have any rips or snags in it or anything. I didn’t throw the wetsuit away. It’s in the drawer with my half-slips should I reconsider.

 

Did you ever notice that, except for Skyler’s one-time weird episode, the one where she gets up from the dinner table and goes into the water with all her clothes on, the Whites never use their pool? And you never see/saw anyone cleaning it, either.

 

I just walked outside and I see no pool guy, but the pool is empty except for about six inches of guck and water still on the bottom. The pool guy evidently is coming back, but he forgot to turn the automatic timer of the filter pump off and that pump is whining as though it’s about to spin apart into a thousand pieces, which is no wonder, since it’s supposed to be sucking water and for god knows how long has been sucking dry air.

I turn it off. I’m thinking, “Liability.” If this filter pump is broken, there is no doubt that Periwinkle Pool is responsible, but I know in my heart I will have a hard time proving this.

I call the pool guy, Matt, on his cell phone to find out when he is coming back and of course I get his voice mail. I don’t know what time it is, maybe 1:30 or so in the afternoon and it is Thursday.

At 5:30 Matt finally calls me and he says he can’t come back. That he is afraid of snakes and there are weeds higher than his head on my property and he’s afraid of going into the little room where the filter pump is because it is covered with vines and he is sure there are snakes in there and that is why he didn’t turn the timer on the filter pump off.

I say, “This is Texas. If you’re afraid of snakes, wear boots.” Half the time the boy is barefoot. He starts again about the vines, as if snakes are going to be falling on him from above or something, and finally he says, “Your pool is a major pain in the ass and I’m not cleaning it ever again.”

I whine and snivel, “What am I supposed to do?” and he tells me he has a friend, Stanley, who will do it on Saturday morning. Power wash the pool so it can be filled back up. Well, if you remember my assisted living story, my son and daughter-in-law were allegedly going to see the pool on Saturday and try to get me into a facility because of its condition, but now I’m stuck, so I say, “Okay, give me his cell number.”

I call Stanley and, although he sounds like a major dunce (not that Matt is up for a Nobel Prize or anything), he swears up and down that he is going to be here first thing Saturday morning. He adds, “Before, you know, your company comes.” So okay, now I know my assisted living story has been circulating, but if it gets my pool back up, fine.

I really am 76 years old, by the way. I get around just fine. I can’t lift heavy things and I get out of breath pretty easily and I do use a cane whenever I go out, but really, assisted living? No way.

 

Anyway, Friday I open the mail and there is a bill from Periwinkle for $179.13 and a handwritten note saying, “Caroline, this bill is from April. Did you forget to pay it?” My name is Madeline. I have corrected them a thousand times to no avail. So anyway, I go to the computer and look and I have not paid a bill for that amount, but I do add up the six payments that I see there and, with this $179.13, I see I will have paid Periwinkle a whopping $860.33 so far and it is only June. So why, I would like to know, was I not entitled to emergency service when I called them and told them about the debris that the storm dumped in my pool? Why did I have to wait nearly three weeks until the water was green slime and then have to tell this stupid assisted living story to get it taken care of?

I put a check for $179.13 in the mailbox with the flag up with a letter about how I would like to increase to every other week after Stanley power washes tomorrow, but that this has been unspeakably bad service, etcetera and how I absolutely will not entertain the idea of having Matt here ever again. I put the “pain in the ass” direct quote in the letter, so his boss, I don’t know her, the owner, the one who keeps calling me “Caroline,” will be shocked to see the way he talked to me.

 

Saturday, by 1:30 pm (way past morning), Stanley still isn’t here. I get a phone call and there he is, Stanley, saying something had come up. “What do you mean?” I say.

“I have to go to, um, this family reunion thing I forgot about, so I, um, won’t be able to service your pool.”

I go nuts. “Oh, yeah? Oh, yeah? Well then come here at least and take your goddam sump pump out of my pool and get rid of the foot of water that’s still in it and I’ll scrub it down myself, that’s what. Come here right now!”

“I’ll try to make it out,” he says, and hangs up.

Well, the minute he’s off the line, I know he is not coming. I know I’ve been had. I know all three of these guys, Matt, Stanley and the guy who is the receptionist at the shop, Benjamin, I think, have made this whole thing up, messing with me, a 76-year-old woman they think is about to be put in the loony bin. Think about it: scorpion, cockroach, snake. Who is who? Which is which? It’s like some big universal thing, so coincidental that no one will believe it really is happening.

I call Stanley back and he actually answers. Obviously he isn’t as hardened as the other two yet. I say, “I have changed my mind. Do not come and get your submersible pump, I am keeping it. I don’t want anyone from Periwinkle ever setting foot on my property again and if you do, I’m calling the police,” and I hang up. Then I call the Periwinkle office, now closed, of course (They close at 2 pm on Saturdays) and leave pretty much the same message, adding that if my own filter pump is kaput, they are responsible and I will sue them. I really want to make it more of a physical threat, but even I know better than to do that on a tape-recorded message.

 

I sit on my sofa fuming. And here’s what I’m thinking. The time before last that Matt, my first pool guy, was here, he knocked on the door and told me he and his friends wanted to start their own pool cleaning business and he needed investors. He told me the owner, the lady who keeps calling me Caroline, had put GPS trackers on all their vehicles to make sure they were always on their proper routes. I told him I thought the GPS was an outrage, but I could not invest (and in truth, there’s no way I should even have a pool except that it was here when my husband was alive and I do use it faithfully in the summer and what else am I going to do, fill it in and not have a pool?). Anyway, I told Matt he and his friends would have to develop a written plan and go to the bank to borrow money to start their business.

I could tell he was ticked off. And now I think that is probably why he didn’t finish my pool on Thursday and probably he and Benjamin and Stanley, who are now thinking of me as helpless because of the assisted living thing I told them, were getting even. Yeah, right. Imagine these three bozos with their own company.

Except that I have just watched the part of Breaking Bad where the pesticide guys are using their tent to hide the meth lab and the pesticide guys are also a part of a huge burglary ring and I’m thinking these three pool guys are probably just the same, into all kinds of illegality in some major way and probably not averse to beating me up or worse. I mean, they know I’m here alone and old, and I just told them I was not giving their pump back.

The pump was pretty hard to move, too. In fact, with great effort, I yanked and finally shoved their pump and the two electrical cords and the long hose attached to it and put it into my shed. My shed is not locked. I will have to go to the hardware store and get a lock.

 

I call my son and I get his voice mail. I say, “Listen, I got into some trouble with three swimming pool guys and I told them I wasn’t giving their pump back and now I’m afraid they’re just going to come and take it and I’m on my way to the hardware store to get a lock. But I’m seriously afraid of them. I’ve just been watching Breaking Bad and they really are just like those guys who tent the houses to get rid of bugs and then …” His answering thing clicks off. I guess my message is too long.

I’m in the hardware store and I buy two locks and five feet of very thick chain for my front yard gate and I just finish checking out when Ronald, my son, calls me back. “Mom,” he says, “You are not making any sense. If you are seriously afraid of these guys, just put their pump outside your gate and call them back and tell them you didn’t mean what you said and that they should come get their pump back. And then get new pool people or something. I mean, if these guys are as awful as you say, why would you be employing them?”

“Because there are only two pool service companies in town and last year I alienated the first one, that’s why. It wasn’t anything like this, wasn’t violent or anything. It was about a charge that I was disputing and I just couldn’t make any headway trying to explain it to this guy, Dwayne. He was just too stupid to understand what I was saying.”

My son sighs. I’ve heard this sigh a thousand times before.

“Ronald,” I say. Everyone in America calls him “Ron,” but I never did. “Ronald, I’m serious, I have just bought these locks and …”

He interrupts me. “Okay, do the thing with the locks. Whatever that is, fine. But the minute you get home put their pump outside the gate, do you understand? How heavy is it? Is it something you can do?”

“Yes. I got it out of the pool and put it in the shed, so, yes, I can do it.”

“Jesus,” he says and there’s that sigh again. “Listen,” he goes on. “Edie and I were sort of talking and we think, maybe, that that place of yours just might be too much for you right now, you know?”

“No, no, I’m fine,” I say. “I just need to get off the phone so I can get back home and put the pump outside the gate and call the pool guys and apologize. That’s a great idea, the pump outside the gate. Thank you. Thank you.” Thank you and goodbye.

“Mom,” he says, “Give me the names of these guys, just in case.”

Scorpion. Cockroach. Snake. “I don’t really know their names. I just know their first names.” I tell him the names.

“Listen,” he says. “We’re thinking that maybe we should come over tomorrow, okay? Really, we have to, I don’t know, maybe sit down and talk.”

“Sure,” I say. “I’ll buy some beer.”

“Edie doesn’t drink beer, remember?”

Right. She drinks that V-8 green drink. I still have some in my fridge, although it is probably way past its expiration date.

“Fine,” I say. “Fine. I’ll get the right stuff.” So now I have to go to the grocery store, and I’d better make it snappy because, from the sound of things, I really have to hurry back home and watch the rest of Breaking Bad because, if I don’t do it tonight, I may never find out how the whole series ends.

 

The painter who did the picture is Vicky C. Balcou.

 

 

Author’s Comment: Writing the story: I kept picturing this woman as a comic character who appears to be perfectly serious. She reads true crime books and watches crime shows and is hugely influenced by them without ever realizing how much. I wanted her world to be cluttered in a never-a-dull-moment, whacky way. I also wanted the story to end with the lie she told to get her pool serviced probably about to come true.
Carolyn Banks, age 76, has been writing for publication since she was 11. Her weekly humor column, “Piece of Mind,” appears in the Bastrop Advertiser and is archived online at www.Statesman.com. She has written nine novels and dozens of short stories, news and feature articles. Banks ventured into filmmaking, writing and directing the feature, Invicta, a full-length documentary, The Fire, and a short comedy, Sex and the Septuagenarian. She lives in Bastrop, Texas, on the Colorado River. For a fuller account, google her Wikipedia page. 

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4 thoughts on “How I Personally and Perhaps Finally Broke Bad, and Yes, the Names Have Been Changed Because I Am Not Exactly a Dolt

  1. Anne Herrington

    You mentioned this short story in your Bastrop Advertiser article, so I made a point of checking it out. I loved it, Carolyn! Always love your column too. And Vicky’s illustration is perfect. Kudos to you both! Will look forward to more stories.

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