A Day of Filling Empty Spaces
Bertha Larsen watched the uniformed plumber pick his way across the slate stepping-stones to her front door. Grass and weeds grew up between the cracks, and some had flowered during the worst dry spell she could remember. The doorbell chimed, but rather than answer it, Bertha spied on the serviceman as he rocked back on his heels, then up on the toes of his maple-colored hiking boots.
He looked rather young, and somewhat frail for a plumber, she thought. Bertha scowled down at her Boston terrier, Pringles, panting contentedly on the peach damask sofa beside her. The old pooch’s eyes, silvered with cataracts, gazed up at his mistress.
“Why don’t you bark and protect me like you used to?” Bertha asked, and hauled herself up and wobbled to the door. She opened the white paint-peeled door just a crack, with its safety chain still in place.
“I’m Johnny from Blue Ribbon Plumbing Service,” the man told her. His light-blue cotton shirt had the company name, as well as his name, Johnny, appliquéd on the pocket.
She glanced down at his toolbox and imagined all the tools that could crack her skull and leave her bleeding while he stole all her precious possessions, including her treasured silver flatware inherited from her great-aunt Silva.
“Come in,” she said somewhat reluctantly. At first glance, she didn’t like the look of the dark circles under his eyes, and the black dirt under his long fingernails. His blotchy skin and reddened nose might have been caused by excessive alcohol usage or undue stress.
At the age of eighty-seven, and in her second year of widowhood, Bertha had hired a parade of handymen to perform the minor repairs the Realtors had told her were necessary before selling the home she’d lived in for more than five decades. But her stingy and demanding ways made it difficult to keep reliable servicemen, and she wondered how long this one would continue working for her.
She had unreasonably high expectations for someone earning only minimum wage. She expected them to be on call 24/7. Once, she’d phoned a serviceman at two in the morning because she’d heard an unfamiliar noise outside. A kind and empathetic young man came to check her doors, windows, and yard, but made sure to tell her that he couldn’t do that on a routine basis, as his new wife might become suspicious.
Now, Johnny stood at military attention and awaited orders. “Nice home, ma’am,” he said, nodding approvingly at the interior.
“Yes, well, thank you.” Bertha followed his eyes. In the daytime, the familiarity of every detail in each room evoked a memory and wrenching sorrow; at night, the shadows and creaks terrified her.
Bertha walked the plumber through the squeaky wood-floored living room, past the paintings hanging crookedly in their ornate golden frames beside her Victorian furniture coated in a thick layer of dust. The solid maple dining-room table and red upholstered chairs hadn’t been moved since the cleaning lady had visited six weeks before.
“Is someone ill here?” the plumber asked. “Our house smells the same way ours did when my pa died.”
“No one is sick here,” she said firmly. “The dog hasn’t been feeling well.” She led Johnny to her only bathroom—an ornately decorated room with maroon and pale-pink tiles, vintage 1950s.
He gingerly removed a mirrored tray with delicate blown-glass animals from the back of the commode. Bertha took the opportunity to study his unshaven chin and disheveled brown hair. She stationed herself stiffly, just outside the door, much like a guard at an upscale jewelry store. She observed keenly as he opened his toolbox.
“You got any kids? Grandkids, maybe?” he asked while fumbling with wrenches in his toolbox.
“Nope,” she answered brusquely, her standard response to the question she most hated to answer.
“Well, someone threw something down here, causin’ it to back up,” he said with his head halfway in the bowl.
“I can’t imagine who would have done anything like that,” she said defensively, leaning on her walker with tennis balls as feet.
“No problem, ma’am. I’ll look after it.”
The phone rang. Bertha wondered if she or the answering machine should field the call. Her phone number was unlisted. She decided to let it ring rather than leave the plumber alone.
The outgoing message, in the deep voice of her late husband, Al, played loudly from her bedroom. An eerie feeling crept up her spine and invaded her heart every time she heard him, but she couldn’t bear to erase the message—nor did she know how. The caller hung up, spooking Bertha even further.
As dusk approached, through the small bathroom window she noticed a shining light. She craned her wrinkled neck to look squarely out the window and squinted to make sure she wasn’t imagining anything. Beside the light she saw a vague image of a face. Startled, Bertha glanced down at the plumber, then back to the window. The image disappeared. Was her antidepressant causing her to hallucinate, or was one of the neighbors gathering information to use against her?
The neighbors thought she was eccentric because she raised bizarre vegetables such as escarole in her garden and kept a compost heap of old coffee grounds and rotten salad leaves piled against their wooden fence.
“It’s all working now, ma’am,” said the plumber, returning his tools one by one to the metal box. “It was just a small packet of tissues.” Johnny held up a sodden wad. “Happens all the time. You should be okay now.”
“Thanks. How much do I owe you?”
“Don’t worry, ma’am. Blue Ribbon’ll bill you. I’d better be on my way. My darlin’s havin’ a baby soon, and I wanna be there. We’re excited.”
The plumber had reached the front door. Now that he was finally leaving, Bertha felt a pang of regret. “Don’t be too lonely now,” he said with a wink, as the old screen door slowly closed behind him.
Bertha closed the wooden door and stood holding onto the doorknob, musing on the handyman’s remark. Did she really seem lonely? She fastened both locks and the chain, then scurried to the window to watch his brown pickup truck signal left as it waited to pull into the two-lane road.
She turned around and scanned the house to see if he’d stolen anything, but nothing appeared to be missing. She pressed her nose close to the window to jot down the truck’s license-plate number before he eased into the traffic. “You never know,” she said aloud to herself, shrugging her shoulders.
Bertha walked back to the bathroom and peered out the small window. The light she’d seen before seemed to be coming from a neighbor’s house, and this time no face peered back at her. She worried that someone could be hiding in the bushes.
She stretched out on her bed to watch the evening news but was distracted by a bang from outside. Shuffling behind her walker, she arrived in her kitchen to grab a carving knife from the wood block and the flashlight she kept on the counter, just in case.
Armed, Bertha walked toward her bedroom, Pringles trotting after her. She went into the bathroom on the way to check out the light, but it was no longer there.
She stood frozen, hunched over the sink. She wondered what she would say if she called 911. Would they think she was a crazy woman if she called because of a light? She wondered again about those new medications her internist had put her on.
“Wasn’t it nice to have a visitor, Pringles?” she asked her dog. “Even if it was just a plumber?” She stroked the dog’s silky fur, which had been groomed the day before. Bertha’s eyes brimmed with tears as she wondered where the time had gone.
She sat down and realized how nice it was to have had someone in her home, even if it was just a plumber. It made the house seem smaller, warmer, and more appreciated. She thought about the flowers she planted each spring in the window boxes and flowerbeds and how there was no one to enjoy them with. After forty years, planting had become an annual ritual, like going to Mass on Christmas Eve.
She walked out of the bathroom and went into the spare room, where her desk sat in front of the window overlooking the flower garden. Using her arthritic right hand, sprinkled with aging spots, Bertha pulled out a brown leather journal from her desk drawer. She examined the way the binding fell flat when she opened it. She glanced down at the blank pages, and the lines became flooded with tears. She reached for a box of tissues in the needlepoint holder her mother had made for her. She realized that the sound of her doorbell ringing had brightened up her day like the chirping of a mourning dove beside a bedroom window.
She sat down slowly, with the realization washing over her: Loneliness is excruciating. And then she sat down to pour her anguish onto the empty pages of her journal. Maybe it would help fill the ache in her heart.
Diana Raab, PhD, is an award-winning memoirist, poet, blogger, speaker, and author of 10 books and over 1000 articles and poems. She’s also editor of two anthologies, ‘Writers on the Edge: 22 Writers Speak About Addiction and Dependency,’ and ‘Writers and Their Notebooks.’ Raab’s two memoirs are ‘Regina’s Closet: Finding My Grandmother’s Secret Journal,’ and ‘Healing With Words: A Writer’s Cancer Journey.’
She blogs for Psychology Today, Thrive Global, Sixty and Me and Wisdom Daily and is a frequent guest blogger for various other sites.
Her two latest books are, ‘Writing for Bliss: A Seven-Step Plan for Telling Your Story and Transforming Your Life,’ and ‘Writing for Bliss: A Companion Journal.’