The first three notes tell you everything. Two hands, four grim octaves, played in fortissimo. Not so much a melody as a warning.
I’ve only just begun the seventh measure when the water starts. A fat drop bounces off the piano lid and I lean forward, feeling it’s a sign – at last, I have managed to play each note with such accuracy and purity that something has been moved. The next drop slips between F and G, followed by two more drops in quick succession.
I remove my glasses and look up.
An ancient crack runs at a diagonal across the ceiling, splintering on its way to the chandelier. Back along the crack, water pools from a quarter-sized patch of plaster above the piano.
Upstairs, to the most obvious origin of the leak. The bathroom tiles are the same shade of avocado they were when I inherited them, dry as I left them this morning, so the next obvious place – yes, there, beneath the vanity. The leak drips in soft, regular intervals from the pipe beneath the sink, a dank place I’ve never faced in all this time. I jiggle at the hot water handle, then the cold, poke around the faucet, push my finger inside the old spigot.
The name for the thing that could fix it. I don’t know, a wrench? A plier? A socket? In all that’s wretched about this year, there’s been nothing like this. I wrap the pipe with a bath towel and tie it tight.
When Rachmaninoff premiered his Prelude in C# Minor, it was said that it “aroused enthusiasm.” Others laughed. There’s nothing funny about it, not with all of these fucking accidentals. It’s like doing calculus. The sharps cancel out the flats. The agitato is agitating, of course, but the triplets are a relief from all those pounding chords, every finger with something to do. I need rest, but it won’t let go, not until I’ve made it through from start to finish just once without having to go back and fix what I missed. To return to a place I understand.
Piano-pianissimo: light bends around the dining room and winds toward sundown when the drip returns. I tug my sweater over my head and spread it across the lid, go back to the beginning. A whisper tells me to go on, to just make it to the end, but the water won’t let up.
I drag a blue bucket up from the basement, sop at the water on the piano lid with my sweater, and place the bucket on top.
The delivery service left the food box on the porch. The new guy is better – I didn’t even hear him. I wrote and told the service that the last one kept peeking in the windows, and they believed me. The kid always rang the bell, like he couldn’t read the fucking sign DO NOT RING BELL and it just got to me.
You’ve seen the movies. You know what happens to women who open doors.
Gluten-free, sugar-free, vegan organic. And it’s not because I don’t minding eating a little fish now and then. I chose this kit because of all the grains and the beans. They keep longer. Tonight it’s some sort of black-bean patty made from potatoes and quinoa. I thought this whole “make it yourself” thing would be good for me, but it’s too much prep. All that simmering and sauteing. The adobo mayonnaise is a nice twist, but the recipe makes you chop up the little peppers like it’s some quaint, enjoyable activity for two. It even suggests a wine pairing and comes with a little card printed with topics for dinner conversation, like: “What season do you most feel like, and why?”
I’m not even hungry anymore.
By midnight, the drip is a rivulet.
I would move the piano, but it’s already jammed between the dining room table and the heating vent. The living room is too cold. I put plastic over the windows but it doesn’t help, and the space heater kept throwing the piano out of tune. Nowhere left to go.
I find another bucket for under the sink and use the bathroom trash can for emptying the buckets. I sit on the bathroom floor and time the buckets like contractions.
Dark leaves float in the water like stirred silt. I see now that this must be the problem. I never rake the leaves. They’re seeping into the groundwater. They’re plugging up the house. I push my hands down through the leaves and water beneath the sink, trying to separate dirt from wet. A gust of wind rattles the bathroom windows, and the bathroom door unlatches.
I wake to the sound of whispering.
By sunrise, the leak is an emergency. Peeling paper sags above the piano. Damp sheet music is piled on the dining room table and in wet clumps along the floor.
I should call someone. I remind myself that no one has entered this house in the past year. Not pizza delivery, not UPS. Not Jehovah’s Witnesses, not a single friend. And not because I don’t have them. Or didn’t, once.
You've seen what happens to women who open doors. You’ve seen what happens to women in too small skirts alone at bars, what happens to women in dirty sweatpants and glasses, to teenage babysitters doing homework alone. Women who stick their noses where they don’t belong, what happens to sassy best friends, what happens to crazy women, what happens to practical women walking home from the train, tattooed pierced girls, four-year-old girls, old women in pearls, take-no-shit women with big barking dogs and sharp teeth. What happens to women who keep running when they ought to know when to quit.
I remind myself that I am not gratuitous. And I have Google.
The Wi-Fi is useless except for email and basic searches, therefore YouTube plumbing videos are useless. In a fit of desperation, I try Angie’s List. Enter zip code, enter plumbing. I select the nearest plumber with the highest ratings and pound:
“I have a leak in my bathroom sink
and it is killing my piano and I need
you to come here IMMEDIATELY.”
I make a pot of coffee and wait in front of my laptop, leaning against the counter.
“Hi this is Dave . no
problem I am at yr
service happy to help.
i dont like to keep you
whats your adress”
I shove the laptop across the counter, press my fingers to my temples, rattle them against the throb. Last spring,
a man chased down a runner in a park,
a man chased down a runner out for her morning run,
a runner in her hat and gloves and running tights and running socks
and running shoes, before she was raped, before she was
killed, the runner bit the man so hard she
cracked her teeth.
I listen to the sound of blood in my ears, hum the agitato.
I open the laptop and cancel Dave. I scroll through plumbers and read the reviews to staccatoed dripping. One jumps out:
“Tired of wasting water? Tala’s Plumbing and Heating is one of the highest-rated business in the area. High-quality, affordable services from a woman you can trust.”
“Ding!” from the laptop. An automated pop-up appears:
“Welcome to Tala’s
Plumbing and Heating.
How can I help you?”
I study the ceiling, follow the dripping down at the line of water where it ends, inches from the top of the blue bucket.
“I have a leak in my
second floor bathroom
and it is about to
destroy my piano.”
Thirty long seconds.
“I’m at a stoplight.
Can you give me a call?”
I don’t want to call, but the water. The water decides everything.
The plumber’s voice is throaty and deep. I explain the problem, I chatter out my need, I do my best to convey urgency.
A cough. “I’ll be there in a half hour.”
I run up the stairs. I wash my hands, drag a toothbrush across my teeth. Pull my hair into a high, tight knot, to cover the dirt. I empty the blue bucket.
The final page of Prelude in C# Minor is marked with a quadruple sforzando, four f’s, as loud as any composition could be played. The only way to do it is to hurl all ten fingers at the keyboard at once and pray they land where they should. I play the page once, twice, three times, maybe eight or ten. When I reach the last three quiet chords, I am panting from the exertion.
The plumber announces herself with three hard knocks.
She is tall through the beveled glass. I stand on the other side in the same sweatshirt and flannel pajama bottoms I’ve been wearing since I began reworking the Prelude.
It's only because I don't know how I will survive without the piano that I open the front door for the first time in over a year.
She leans against the porch railing with her back to me, smoking. Her hair is wiry and thick, long and black down the middle of her back. When she turns to look at me, I want to hide. I take in her dark eyebrows, the aquiline nose, high cheekbones and loose flannel shirt, down vest, jeans and boots. Blue-black eyes rimmed with lashes so thick they could be drawn with kohl. The thin, unsmiling mouth.
The plumber takes a drag from her cigarette, flicks it off the porch, exhales.
“Tala,” she says, and extends her hand.
Her skin is so warm.
She picks up her toolbox.
I follow her up the stairs.
There is more emphasis on the “h” than most, a glottal, sort of guttural sound, like dry wind through October lavender. The “o” in long is more round than people usually say it, which is soothing.
“How long?” she repeats, and turns. She holds the stairway banister with her right hand, the toolbox with her left. “The leak?”
I shrug. “A few hours, maybe? A few days?” (A few weeks?)
Her lower lip moves to the left, only very slightly. “So is it hours or days?”
I divide myself in half, slip through the banister railings and waft down the hall, back to the piano. The piano-pianissimo is just so needy. It needs me, and the bucket needs changing.
My other half sits on the edge of the tub, watching as Tala peers below the peeling vanity with a flashlight. I chew at the nail on my right index finger, cringing at the soggy Q-Tips and dust and gobs of hair, the old tubes of toothpaste curled like snakes around the drainpipe, the sodden piles of towels. She removes the bucket and the water streams down the pipes from somewhere, I don’t know.
She reaches into her pocket and produces a hair band, secures her thick hair behind her head, and goes under. The nape of her neck is dark, like honey, softer than I would have imagined. The softness strikes me as being too vulnerable, she is out there in the world with her tools and her boots, revealing nothing of this softness.
It could be her it could be me it could you it could be anyone because in Washington when-you’re-rich-they-let-you-do-it this-isn’t-a-guns-situation is making up the rules.
“Hand me the wrench.” Tala points to the toolbox.
I make the right guess and hand it to her, and she disappears beneath the sink. The sound of metal, a brief tapping, a slight shift in her back with the effort of something, and the water stops. Suddenly, and without drama.
Tala’s head reemerges. “You could have fixed it yourself,” she says, over her shoulder.
“Obviously I couldn’t!” I snap.
She sits up and looks at me.
Her eyes are so unreadable. I focus on her mouth.
“I’m going to show you what to do, OK?”
I cross my arms.
She motions me forward. “See this bend in the pipe? Whoever installed it did a bad job – they used a plastic nut and a metal pipe. Plus, the pipe’s full of rust. One day, it’s going to need to be replaced. For today, just tighten the slip nut, like this –” she yanks at the wrench. “See?”
I nod. “No.”
“No, you don’t see?”
“No, I don’t know. I mean, which way? Which way do I turn it?”
She sits up, hands me the wrench. “Righty tighty, lefty loosey.”
She laughs. I see that her teeth are uneven, and a bit stained from coffee or nicotine. When I understand what to do, left to loosen, right for tight, Tala closes her toolbox and releases her hair. It falls around her face.
I wonder how it would feel to invite her downstairs for a cup of coffee, to lean against her and ask about her day, to make her a sandwich. To play the entire Prelude for her, from start to finish, without missing a note.
I ask: “How much?” Hoping she won’t ask for cash.
Tala stands. “Nothing,” she says. “It was an easy fix.”
When we reach the door, she turns and hands me her card. “Call me if you ever want that pipe replaced. Sooner or later, it’s going to cause you trouble.”
I nod, pressing the card against my palm. She pauses, and I want to thank her, but speaking is so foreign now. “OK, take care,” she says, and opens the door. Her hair swings around her back and it smells like cool air and shampoo.
“What season do you feel like, and why?!” It comes out in a rush.
Tala turns and looks, and my entire body flushes. I grab the thick door, and it’s nearly shut when she replies, “Winter.”
I see through the crack that she is smiling. I open the door a few inches. “Why?”
Tala shrugs. “It’s the quiet season. And I like the cold.”
I look at my slippers and nod. “OK.”
Tala smiles, and I see now that her lips are not so thin, it’s just that the smile begins at her eyes first. “Call anytime.”
I sit at the piano and stare at the patch on the ceiling, run my fingers along the edges of Tala’s card where it rests against the music. I follow the stairs to the bathroom to gather the buckets, and that’s when I notice the wrench. There, inside the vanity, where she must have left it. I sit on my knees and peer beneath the sink.
I pick up the wrench.
Righty tighty, lefty loosie. It could go either way.
The wind is back. It shakes down the last of the brittle leaves, signaling winter.
Leigh Hopkins is the Curator of Corporeal Clamor. The latest installment of her column, "Secret Circus," is a 6-month hybrid series of serial fiction and music. In 2010, Leigh left a career in public education reform to move to Brazil, where she founded Viva Institute by rigging a satellite dish to a boulder in a banana field. Her writing can be found in Elephant Journal, ENTROPY Magazine, The Manifest-Station, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Viva Institute, and on her website. Leigh lives in Philadelphia with her wife, a painter, and their jittery terrier. She has written a memoir and is completing a novel.