My radiators didn’t heat, my toilet gushed, the washing machine rattled. Next it would be my stove. That’s how it had been in my sister’s house as she was dying from a brain tumor. The toaster, dishwasher, refrigerator, every appliance that could malfunction did, as if in sympathy with her forty-one-year-old body. The weather, too, conspired, with the worst blizzard in a hundred years. There were a few things I never wanted to cope with again and that was one. Two and a half years later, my mother, my siblings, and I still talked about her death and still expected to pick up the phone and hear my sister say we should make a beeline for the Matisse show and couldn’t we help the women being sexually harassed in the mines on the Iron Range and shouldn’t we see Martina at Wimbledon at least once in our lives? And, oh, she’d ordered crème brulée at a great restaurant and it was so good she’d eaten two more!
All I wanted after my sister died was to escape the Midwest and never think about death again. I fled to California, and although I stayed for only six months before returning, it was then I managed to find my San Francisco boyfriend. I fell for him because he was an artist who made things I didn’t understand – I was sure he must be very smart.
As far as I knew, I wasn’t dying, anymore than we all are, every minute of every day, but I’d pretty much given up on my townhouse in Minnesota – this was the first time for the toilet malfunction but the third time for my radiators. When I had called about the radiators, the office said they’d send an HVAC man. I had no idea what that was and had to ask my boyfriend in California. With a love I hoped he would eventually show for me, he started to explain in detail on the phone what an HVAC man does, but I stopped him. “Just the acronym,” I said. Once I knew, it was so obvious I wondered how I’d survived so long without knowing.
I didn’t dare use my toilet and had to find one quickly. Throwing on a pair of jeans, turtleneck, sweater, boots, hat, and a dreary down jacket, I braved the ten-degree cold and ran to the restaurant across two boulevards for a toilet because it would be cleaner than gas station toilet across only one boulevard.
All toilets used to be clean. Now dirty public toilets were the norm and a quick glance around a bathroom wasn’t enough to assess its cleanliness – you had to examine closely. Who knows why? I’ve asked friends but male friends haven’t noticed. Women friends suggested unisex bathrooms and poor toilet training by new age parents. I think it’s the breakdown of Western Civilization.
The restaurant was closed so I bounded back to the gas station and was pleasantly surprised. The bathroom was acceptable as were the friendly employees whom I complimented on their hygiene before racing home to arrange for a series of repair persons.
Maybe it wasn’t the breakdown of Western Civilization but things were out of joint. Dirty public bathrooms, global warming, more and more brutality, my younger sister gone and friends who looked at their shoes when I mentioned her. That people assumed you recovered quickly from death I hadn’t understood before it happened to me. I was sorry for all the people who had death in their lives whom I’d avoided in the past because I was uncomfortable. These days I went to work, came home, took a nap, then walked two miles at night in single-digit cold for a cookie, just to interact with someone who wouldn’t avoid me, even if it was a clerk at Lunds Grocery Store. Besides, walking cancelled out the calories from the cookie.
Shortly after I got home, the HVAC man knocked. Jimmy’s shrug when I introduced myself implied he wasn’t the chatty type. My townhouse was in southwest Minneapolis – yuppies, joggers, etc. He probably lived Northeast, where working class Norwegian and Polish immigrants had lived for generations and men tended to the taciturn. Northeast – Emily’s Lebanese Deli with heavily parsleyed tabouli and perfect spinach pie. Spinach and lemon, no cheese.
My sister had introduced me to Emily’s when she was a mailman in Northeast – she would never have said “mailman.” “Postal carrier!” she would have corrected me, just as she had corrected the surgeon when he said, “Don’t worry. The tumor’s on the right side of your brain.” “I’m a plaintiff’s lawyer, John,” she objected. On principle, she called doctors by their first names. “What makes me good at what I do is that my right brain and left brain talk to each other. Don’t tell me I don’t have to worry.”
Jimmy’s feet were wet from the snow but he barely wiped his shoes before squeezing around the piano to get upstairs.
“Here are the pipes that don’t work,” I said, following him into the bedroom.
“Changes stopped the flow. Plumbed wrong.”
“Nothing’s changed in the nine years I’ve lived here.”
“Hmmm,” he said as he shuffled on to the pipes in the next bedroom.
What did other people do when trades people came? Follow them around? Go about their own business in another part of the house? Wait at the bottom of the stairs? If I followed him, I’d become anxious about cost, but if I looked interested, maybe he’d do a better job. Or did he want me to leave him alone so he could finish in peace? If I followed him, would he think I thought he might steal something?
Kitchen, basement, upstairs, bedrooms, bathroom, he examined pipes. I stuck close, trying to avoid his cough – from smoking, I figured, though I knew I shouldn’t make such an assumption. It was February in a long unbearable winter and a cough could come from anything. That said, I could see that Jimmy’s squat, low-to-the-ground body hadn’t benefitted from many visits to the health food store.
The toilet was still sloshing. I knew he could hear it.
“Could you take a look at the toilet?” I asked.
I hoped Jimmy cared about water waste. Even if Minnesotans didn’t have to worry about running water, we should consider the rest of the country, if not the world, both of which are charging headlong into water wars. Many people—even my own mother—say, “Who cares? Why should we take care of California or Arizona?” This lack of concern for the world was a bad sign, that and the lack of clean public toilets.
“Call a plumber,” he said. “You bleed the radiators?”
“Six times. The previous HVAC man insisted,” I said, eager to display my understanding of the acronym.
“I’ve come in,” he said, “where guys have missed something and figured it out. Never been stumped yet. In three days, I’m supposed to get my thirty year pin.” He continued to the door, a puzzled look on his face. “Maybe I don’t deserve it,” I thought I heard him say. He shuffled down the slippery front steps and after a careful duck-walk on the ice, eased himself into his truck.
The HVAC receptionist called twenty minutes later – valves, she said. Someone would be out in four weeks. That didn’t mean they’d fix it in four weeks. It was just another try, and when that didn’t work, it would confirm the sorry state of our infrastructure.
It was a long time to go without heat on the second floor but I’d already survived a month. I could wear two thick wool sweaters and throw a down sleeping bag on the bed. It would be no worse than winter camping, something many Minnesotans claimed to love, although I wasn’t among them.
During the month, I spent long hours at the office and, at night, raced into bed to avoid the cold. I bought gas across the boulevard and stopped to gossip with my friendly station attendants, who, amazingly, were also knowledgeable about the decline of Western Civilization. I called my boyfriend and suggested he move to Minnesota where, unlike California, there was enough water but not too much. However, on his first visit the previous Thanksgiving, I’d made a serious miscalculation in thinking it would be fun to take a three-mile walk around Lake Calhoun in a blinding blizzard. Moving to Minnesota didn’t appeal to him. But in summer you can swim in the lake, I said.
I hadn’t known who would come to fix the radiators at the end of the month, and when it was Jimmy who showed up, I realized I was glad. The minutes spent together a month before, the few monosyllabic words, the explanation of water flowing up and down in a radiator, meant we weren’t starting from scratch. We would be easier with each other and the silence less awkward, even if he was a person who didn’t say much and whom I would never see again. Also, I didn’t have to obsess about whether to follow him around. That problem had been solved.
“Did you get your thirty year pin?” I asked.
“Yup. The boss, me, the engineers, the janitor, we had a powwow in the shop. It’s the valves. Plugged.”
“Nothing changed,” I repeated, just as I had four weeks ago.
“Yeah,” he said. “I know.” No one cared what I had to say about the radiators.
In the basement, he cut open a pipe and let the water bleed. He climbed the stairs and unhooked the radiators from their moorings on the wall. Downstairs to cut more pipe. Upstairs, then down. We were both getting our exercise, which was good, because it was too icy to walk outside. He explained again how the valves worked so if it happened next year, I’d understand, though I wasn’t hopeful. He could be quite chatty when he was talking about radiator valves. In this he was like my boyfriend. Maybe all men were.
For the last time, I followed Jimmy up the stairs. The job was beautiful – lovely valves, no age speckling, handles that turned and twisted easily, back and forth, that wouldn’t give a foothold to the inch-long, hairy flat silverfish that slithered into the house when I wasn’t watching, then hung out in the bathtub for me to squash.
He turned on the valves and his large rough hands rested on the radiator. “Feel it,” he said. “You might need this heat. It’s only the end of March.” I put my hand on it. Everything in my body warmed. As we walked the thirteen steps downstairs, I smiled. I would have heat for what was supposed to be, but rarely was, spring.
The prospect made me happy enough to ask, “Do you want half a cinnamon roll?”
I frowned. I had hoped he’d say no. I found a plate and heated the roll in the microwave. I looked at his hands.
“Want to wash your hands?”
“Nah.” He wiped them off on his trousers, full of grease and dirt from the old valves, the wrenches to hack the pipes apart and the glue or whatever it was to patch them back together.
He sat down on the stool in the kitchen, didn’t remove his jacket. A different kind of silence descended. Not awkward, though not easy. What would I say to him? My sister would have already asked him who delivered his mail, if he’d ever been injured on the job and collected workers comp, and if women worked at his shop. In another minute she would have been discussing sexism with him.
I put the smaller half of the roll on a plate with a white napkin beside it. He picked up the roll, not the napkin.
“My son, he’s fifteen,” he said, “won’t go to school. I don’t know what’s wrong. The weather, maybe. I even offered to drive him this morning.”
We looked out the window where it had been the same color for months. Nothing green, just snow or slush or watery sky and a bitter wind that blew through you.
“I think what I need is to go to Hawaii or fishing,” he said, “get away, get some sun.” Hawaii – this was how Minnesotans talked in March.
He looked out the window again. It had started to sleet. Bad driving weather.
I was a social worker. “Did your son see a counselor?” I asked. This was what social workers said when they couldn’t think of anything else.
“Yup, cost $500. That was the deductible. Didn’t help him a bit as far as I can tell.”
This wasn’t surprising. Hardly anyone knew what to do with teenagers. I didn’t have kids and had never wanted them, although the night before I’d considered adoption. The thought had come as I’d watched a TV drama about a baby with heart problems who needed parents. Why had I watched when I knew that television dramas were developed to elicit precisely such easy sentimentality? Maybe I could raise a kid right, but what could you do about genetics, abuse that happened before you adopted, adolescent hormones, drugs? I visualized the arc of a life. I wouldn’t perform well. I couldn’t even fix the toilet without crying.
Why was Jimmy telling me about his son? Could he tell I was a social worker? At least twice, homeless persons had said, “You’re a social worker, aren’t you?” Sometimes I lied and said no. I didn’t like the idea that my face wore whatever look people associated with social workers. One person said, “A teacher, then?” This probably meant I walked around with a bossy look on my face. It could mean that the homeless persons saw a caring look on my face but I was pretty sure clients didn’t think social workers looked caring. Maybe some did but my face had a pursed lips look. Every day I told myself to smile more but room for improvement remained.
“Why doesn’t he want to go to school?” I asked.
“He hasn’t been the same since a year and a half ago. Since his brother committed suicide. He loved his brother. He never came back from that.”
I looked at him, taken aback. I was wary, not of him, but of myself and what I would say, the way you become wary when the cold fact of death intrudes on a conversation that has, up to that point, consisted of social pleasantries. I’d felt that wariness from friends after my sister died, although I wasn’t as shocked now as I would have been then. Now death was part of the landscape, especially the March landscape in Minnesota.
My sister had been diagnosed in March. In the green and sun of spring, summer or fall, you had distractions, biking, fishing, jumping in a cool city lake after a run. In those seasons, I could remember making fudge for my sister. She’d hear it bubbling on the stove, walk over and nuzzle her face in my neck. Dripping chocolate all over the floor, I’d shoo her away with the wooden spoon and dribble fudge on her pink jumpsuit. How could so adamant a feminist wear pink, not just loud, aggressive pink, but frilly pink? “Being a feminist doesn’t mean you can’t have fun,” she’d said. “Guys love this jumpsuit.”
I don’t know if I ever made anyone as happy as I made her with fudge. She’d sit down at the kitchen table, expectantly, confidently, patiently, waiting for the one inch squares of fudge with a drop of melted butter from the pan and tell me about sexist judges, crooked insurance companies and how her client’s ex-wife had stood up and testified against him, but then my sister pulled out a letter the ex-wife had written to him, and by the time my sister finished reading it, the jury was crying. “I had them eating out of my hand!” she crowed.
In summer or fall, you could smile when you remembered your sister sitting on the porch, drinking lemonade and eating fudge, but after five months of winter, you didn’t have the energy required to imagine a blue lake or a pink jumpsuit.
“My oldest son killed himself,” Jimmy went on, “because of his wife. I told him to leave her but he loved her. She could just push a button, drove him to it. Oh, I hope I never see her again. There wasn’t nothing we could do.
“He was a genius. Plumbing, like me, could figure anything out.” Jimmy shook his head. “My first, twenty-five years old. A second father to the fifteen year old. My wife isn’t herself either. I bought her flowers. Didn’t matter. She just sits.”
Maybe the endless succession of long gray days when it seemed that nothing would ever change made Jimmy talkative. Who else was there? His wife didn’t know what hit her, his son skipped school and couldn’t say why. The guys at the shop? In the past, maybe he would have talked to his dead son Paul, a casual back and forth honed over years of analyzing the mysteries of heating systems.
I was standing on the other side of the counter in my yellow kitchen, no longer bright in the dark March light. Jimmy raised his eyebrows and looked up at me.
“The psychiatrist said my son’s wife’s a paranoid schizophrenic. Can you beat that? Crazy! After the funeral, she came back to the house. I was sitting in the yard on the picnic bench. She wanted the car. ‘Just get out of here,’ I said. You know what she did? She went to court and sued me, said I chased her off the property and threatened her. The judge threw the case out, issued a restraining order on her. My wife’s never been the same. Go to a grief group, they said. I went, but my wife wouldn’t.”
Who could work, keep house or take care of kids, after your son died? Who could go to school? Jimmy and I were quiet.
“Maybe your son should find a grief group,” I finally said. “A group for kids with relatives who committed suicide. Sometimes groups work with teens.”
Each of us looked out the window again. Even the snow was ashen. On Excelsior Boulevard irresponsible drivers raced by in the sleet.
I rinsed my fingers, the gooey cinnamon roll stuck to his. He finished his half roll, wiped his hands on his pants, and stood up. I wanted to say something more, but what? Should I hug him and say, “That’s awful”? We weren’t friends, we’d been together a total of two hours over four weeks. What had happened was awful, but when well-wishers said that to me, I felt I had to tell them it was all right when it definitely wasn’t.
“How long’s it been since your son committed suicide?”
“This April, two years.”
It was two and half years for me, three in November. I thought of my sister on her knees, planting flowers, the summer before she died. The crabapple tree was in full bloom in her backyard. Blushing pink. She couldn’t see well and couldn’t tell which was a weed and which a flower so she just pulled up and hoped. “No matter what happens,” she said, “the flowers are a good idea. Either I’ll be here to enjoy them or I’ll leave something behind.”
“Maybe that’s why your wife’s upset,” I said. “Maybe even your son. Anniversaries. Every year, around that time, no one wants to do anything. You don’t even realize that’s it. Flowers don’t help.”
This was what my therapist friends claimed. To me, it sounded like mumbo-jumbo. Was there some giant calendar in the sky tracking deaths and ensuring that gloom descends on the right person on the right day? Were our bodies synchronized with calendar dates? Probably not, but it was all I had to offer.
“Yeah, is that so?” Jimmy said. He jumped up, strode to the door, grabbed his toolbox and walked out. I followed.
“Thanks for the roll,” he said.
“You might want to do something with the family on April 4,” I said. “A remembrance.”
“Really?” On the top step, Jimmy turned around to look at me.
“Yeah, the Ojibwe do that. Every year for three years. After that, they say, enough! Time to move on.” A colleague with roots on a Minnesota reservation told me this. I thought of doing something for my sister but when November came, I was always too depressed.
“Yeah? I’ve read about other things they do. They weren’t so dumb.”
No one’s feet could remain steady on the sleet but Jimmy made it down the steps and into his truck without falling. I breathed a sign of relief and shut the door.
I went upstairs and sat down on the white wicker daybed where my sister had slept when she visited. I felt the radiator’s heat. Across the room, a window overlooked Excelsior Boulevard and I heard the maniac cars whizzing by. I wondered if there was something else I could have said to Jimmy. Maybe I should have told him the truth – two years was not enough time to get over something as big as death. That might have been good, but even though I had been warm and happy because he’d fixed my radiators, I hadn’t been prepared for his heartbreak. I was glad I’d managed to say anything at all. I wished I could tell my sister about Jimmy. She’d worked with guys like him in northeast Minneapolis. She would have known what to say.
Sitting on the bed, I found that half a cinnamon roll hadn’t been enough. Maybe it hadn’t been enough for Jimmy either and his half had been smaller. I suited up in my multiple cold weather layers, gathered the emotional energy required to take the first step outside, opened the door, and did a flat-footed walk across two boulevards for a second roll.
Bakeries uplifted me – butter, sugar, yeast, smiling faces intent on pastry. I smiled myself. The long line at the counter gave me time to assess the raspberry pecan brioche, the over-burdened cinnamon rolls and the sour cream coffee cake. I considered buying one pastry for myself and one in memory of my sister. When she’d stayed with me, I always brought her a food treat. She’d see Emily’s baked kibbi and spinach pie on the counter when she walked in the door and deliver a huge unambiguous smile of even white teeth and bright red lipstick.
Buying two cinnamon rolls would be crazy. The second one, sitting there as if she might walk through the door, would make me sad. No, I wouldn’t leave one on the counter – I’d eat them both. Maybe I could eat the second one in her memory.
“Next,” the counterperson said. I looked up and pointed to the cinnamon rolls.