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Volume 8, Issue 4: Pictura


Douglas Jones

Without watching where it rolled, Janey dropped the empty basket outside the screen door and continued into her kitchen. Her gardening gloves were tighter. Shrinkage she assured herself. She stiffly pulled at the glove fingers as if they were obstinate roots and then slapped the liberated gloves onto the counter. She forced her hair behind her ears. "Where are their children? That's what I want to know."

The smack of canvas on formica had made Dan cease his pacing about for a moment.
"What's that smell?" he asked.
"Mrs. Dreyfuss had grazed both her arms in a bathtub slip, and she would have sat on the floor all day if I hadn't stopped by to give her some avocados." Janey opened and slammed cupboard doors in search of something essential.
"You must smell it," said Dan. He was sniffing around the baseboards.
"You should have seen her. So sad. She had to rely on me instead of a son or daughter. You'd better die after I do. You'd better not leave me like that." For over twelve years, they had been trying to conceive a child.
"It smells like sewage," said Dan. He passed by.
She finally stared at him, one hand on her hip. She slammed another cupboard.
"Did you hear that a cow over in Farley gave birth to an octopus?" she said. He grunted and kept searching. "Oh, and then the octopus went to work as a trampoline at the elementary school. The kids over there love it."
"Mmmm," he answered and opened the basement door. "Oh, for Pete's sake!" He hurried down the steps. "Janey!"
The darkness from the basement seemed to creep into the kitchen. Janey moved slowly to the top of the stairs and caught glimpses of the black water lapping peacefully at the bottom stairs. Dan turned a contorted face to Janey. "Potato peels?"
She pulled in her cheeks lightly and stood frozen, not breathing. Finally, "I only let a few go by." Her voice was small and hollow. She smiled. The savior from Roto-Rooter had warned her personally. These old pipes just can't take much, she heard him echoing.

When Dan returned down the stairs, he carried a bevy of rattling tools. His rubber thigh boots brushed against Janey who sat down the stairs, near the sewage water. She thought that sharing the pain of the smell with him might provide some penance.

"Nice tools," she said. Dan said nothing. He waded into the soup in search of the main drain. Janey's hand pressed tighter over her nose. "How long has this been backing up down here?" she muffled behind her hand. He kept poking around the water with a long stick.
"Don't you have some appliance to break up stairs?" asked Dan with his back to her. She puckered slightly.
"No, I'm the plumber's helper," she said and held up a shiny crescent wrench like a baton.
"I was thinking of another title," he said.
Success never came. After an hour of spearing and snaking, the drain wouldn't give up its demon. Time for Plan B--Ross Mates, a high-school friend of Dan's. Ross lived about two miles down the same dirt, county road as Dan and Janey. Ross wasn't Roto-Rooter, but he was always a willing hand and did have the trophy of the moment--an electric drain snake.
But Ross wasn't home. Dan and Janey sat outside and waited. Dan kept pushing redial. Getting a professional man out there on a Saturday was beyond their means, and Janey didn't dare suggest it. She closed her eyes, knowing that she would have to live over this muck until Monday, when Plan C--Roto-Rooter would finally have to kick in. This would be his way of punishing her, she knew. She preferred self-imposed penance.

They finally got through to Ross, and he showed up dragging his electric snake like a reluctant dog. "You folks sure know how to spend a Saturday. No fear, Rosso-rooter is here." Janey smiled. Dan just led the way downstairs. "Is Dan not talking again?" Ross asked loudly. Janey's eyes laughed, and she nodded. "Okay, just so I know the rules," he said. Ross slapped Dan on the back.

The three of them stood on the bottom steps, gazing across to the basement horizon. Dan was moving things about and pointing out four possible blockage points. "How about one of your great cookies, Janey?" Ross asked.
"I've lost my appetite," said Janey.
"That's okay, I was asking for me." Ross started rubbing Janey's shoulders like a boxing coach. "Ease up girl. Get yourself ready. Dan and I have voted, and you get to dive down to insert the snake. Sewage makes us cry." Ross howled at his humor, his curly hair shook.
Dan started uncoiling the electric snake, and Ross pried his hands off of it and took over. "This is a job for a man Dan." Ross trudged straight into the muck in his tennis shoes and jeans; Dan followed in his thigh boots.
"Hey, Dan, you remember that time at Camp Helendade, when you pushed me backwards into the swamp?"
Dan stood up straight.
"Just kidding man, but sewage would be the ultimate pay back, right?" said Ross. He forced the snake as far as it would go into the suspect drain. He motioned, and Janey flipped the switch. As she did, she wondered about the wisdom of so much electricity around so much water and her husband. She gripped the body of the snake casing tighter. The machine growled and twisted. "Loud, isn't it?" shouted Ross to Janey. "You can't hear us talk!" he added. She couldn't make out anything. Dan's back was to them. Then Ross pointed at himself then Janey, smiling, and mouthed the words I love you. Janey rolled her eyes and shook her head.
Ross and Dan decided the electric snake was too weak. You needed one of those really powerful ones for this job. Plan C? hoped Janey. No. Ross explained that he had one of those big drain bulbs you attach to a hose and shove in the drain. The water forces the bulb to balloon, blocking the drain, at the same time it shoots a high pressure stream of water at the blockage. Works every time when the snake won't. Janey forbade Ross to walk through the house, so Dan left his thigh boots on the steps and set out after the drain bulb. The air in the basement hung heavily. Ross could hear Dan walking toward the truck.
"So when are you going to run away with me, Janey? I'm planning a trip for us to Tahiti."
"You can't even open a drain," she said.
"That makes me tied with Dan." Ross sloshed through the water over to Janey.
"What did you ever see in him anyway?"
She paused. "Well, he's not a little boy, for one," said Janey. Her eyes flashed.
Dan was pushing the garden hose with bulb attached through a basement window. Ross sloshed over, pulled it through, and pushed it into the drain. "Turn it on," Ross shouted to Dan. At first water bubbled up, then as the bulb expanded, it made a constant, high pitched noise that vibrated throughout the house. They pictured the submerged drain filling with water , expanding. Janey imagined it exploding like a bomb and sucking the whole house down into Hades, Ross first.
The pulsing noise grew more ominous but nothing gave way in the drain. Ross walked back over to the stairs.
"You know," he gave a tilted, boyish smile, "Janey, you know you love me. Let's face it." He stretched his hands behind his neck.
"You're a sick man, Ross. Get a life."
"I can see your desire for me deep in your eyes," he added in a cartoonish French accent.
"This isn't funny anymore. I'm going upstairs. You keep track of the drain by yourself." She stood, turned, and started up the stairs.
Ross reached up and tapped her shoulder. He grabbed her hand and kissed it. "Oh, forgive me, fair princess." She tried to jerk her hand away, but he pulled her down so that her face came close to his. She pushed at him with her free hand, and he lost his footing on the step, let her hand go, and sat down in the sewage with a plop. Janey was gone, up and away.
As Ross sat there for a moment grinning, the drain flushed and quickly started emptying the basement of water. He cheered by himself and yelled up to Dan. "There she blows. Just turn it down a bit now, and I'll unhook the bulb and start spraying down all the leftovers after all the water is gone."
I need my big brush from the truck. And I need to find Janey. Ross started calling for an old rag towel as he walked up the stairs so he could wipe his feet and get out to the truck. A rag was already waiting behind the door. Such service.
He didn't see Janey anywhere. When he got outside, he walked by Dan, who was coiling the unneeded stretch of hose. Ross explained he was going to get the broad broom from the truck.
When he returned with the broom, Dan was gone from sight. Ross got to the back door and pulled on the screen handle, but it was locked. He called out. Dan's face took shape behind the gray screen.
"It's time for you to go home, Ross," said Dan.
Ross feigned confusion. And then, "Yeah, and all I'll charge is a dozen cookies instead of my usual two. . . Open the door, Dan." Ross pulled on the door again.
"Get a way from my house," whispered Dan.
"Oh, come on man, I was just playing around. Did Janey come whining. I didn't mean any harm. It's just me, Ross. Joking Ross."
"That's the problem Ross. You have no respect for anything. You make everything into a freaking joke. You ruined your marriage. You stay away from mine."
"Come on, Dan. Don't ruin this. You and I go back way before Janey. I was joking."
"If you were my friend, you wouldn't do what you did. I'm trying to restrain myself behind this screen."
"What about my snake and bulb?" Dan started opening the screen door in pursuit. "I'm going, I'm going," said Ross.

Janey found Dan almost finished spraying the floor in the basement with water and ammonia. She sat near the bottom step. "That's a much nicer smell." He kept working. She stared at his work. "I'm sorry about Ross."

"You have nothing to apologize for," said Dan.
She put her chin on her knees. "I'm sorry about the potato peels. Scout's honor," she held up a confused Scout sign, "no more."
"What's Saturday without some excitement?" said Dan.
"Come here," she said. He glanced at her then back at the spraying. She thoughtlessly pulled at some loose stair paint. She tilted her head, beckoning. "Come give your plumber's helper a kiss." Dan raised his eyebrows.
"I'm sure that's against union rules." Finally, he set the hose down carefully into the drain. He walked over and stood in front of her. He leaned over and kissed her and felt her warmth. He gloried in her kiss. Home.
Dan sat down beside her, and they stared over the newly hygienic basement. They liked the quiet. Dan looked away from her and spoke slowly in a flat tone: "Did I tell you about that cow that gave birth to an octopus over in Farley?"
She flicked the shaving of stair paint in his hair. "Get your own lies."

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