Friday, November 30, 2012

The Water Man

I recently read a short story by Jim Damis titled The Water Man. It is about an elderly brother and sister who live together and are visited by a young man who has come to check the water meter at their old house.

It is a candid view of a stifling yet secure relationship, which is turned upside down by a surreal event. Although the fantastical twist is Damis' signature, what I like most are his simple details of the tolerated cohabitation.

I especially enjoy the image of the sister vacuuming her brother as he reads the paper in his armchair (as if he is the armchair) without his letting on that he secretly enjoys the suction of the nozzle passing over him.

The temporal structure of the story is interesting. The patient approach of the beginning changes gears as it moves from words that sink into the fiber of the page to writing that is quicker paced, almost cinematic. Damis pulls the reader out of the first part of the story with the same force that a motorboat yanks a waterskier out of a lake...oh wait a minute, (spoiler alert) that has something to do with the story.

The entire short story is available here with permission by the author.
Click here to contact Jim Damis at

The Water Man

by Jim Damis

They were the brother and sister who never left home. Dolores and Ambrose Culpepper lived in the same brick Tudor house from the day they were born until they became septuagenarians, watching each of their seven other siblings move out and make lives of their own as they came of age. Dolores was three years older than Ambrose, the fourth and fifth in birth order, middle children who were close to all of their brothers and sisters. But, ironically, they were never close to each other. Dolores routinely beat up her younger brother when he was too little to defend himself, and the boy paid her back in spades with overweening aggression as soon as he grew capable of it. Finally cleaning her clock, Ambrose was fond of saying years later, was the most gratifying accomplishment of his life. They found one another obnoxious and quarreled constantly, by high school settling into a modus operandi of mutual avoidance. Yet it was these two who inherited the house in their forties when their mother died, as the three lived there together for nearly two decades, Dolores and Ambrose being the ones who took care of her in her ailing last years. Their father, a merchant marine who became interested in herbivorous forest grazing, succumbed to a deceptive toadstool when the children were still small. After their mother expired in her sleep, the two siblings continued to live together for more than thirty years. Most people who have been alone under the same roof for that long become exasperated and repulsed by one another’s habits and peccadilloes, and Dolores and Ambrose were no different, except in them smoldered an ever intensifying mutual hatred that ever threatened to burst into a conflagration. And together they were stuck, as Ambrose wanted to sell the house and Dolores would not, and she could not buy his half out and he could not support himself without his half. Theirs was simply a bad situation.

Their list of grievances with each other could fill several volumes. There were money disputes, of course, such as who paid more into the maintenance and repair of the house over the years. Then there were all the jealousies and slights regarding family, their brothers and sisters and nephews and nieces and who was the more respected and popular among them. And old blames forever simmered in their souls, such as Ambrose’s undying deduction that it was his sister who divulged his morbid fear of turtles to Shirley Klenk, the young counter girl at the town’s diner who never took to his woo, often teasing him that he should try the turtle soup. Dolores imputed her brother in the cartilage injury she sustained to her nose as a young woman when she stepped on a metal rake left in the high grass of their back yard, insidiously planted there by him, she believed, insofar as he knew the precise path she would be taking for her daily sun bath. There were scores of other such grudges carried between the two over the decades. Then there were the annoying habits, quirks, and idiosyncrasies they each endured over the years, irksomeness magnifying by way of a cumulative effect into something more maddening, insufferable. Ambrose, for example, was a frequent belcher, sometimes spewing cacophonous, volcanic belches, perhaps as a result of his proud prowess as a trencherman. He was a stout man with a serious appetite. These sudden eruptions would often split the silence of the house and startle, if not shock the hell out of Dolores, who would shriek in dismay and occasionally lose her footing and actually go down. She invariably heard her brother snickering in another room, or wherever he was, as he was a great snickerer and moaner too, but he always maintained his muffled laughs were unrelated to his sister’s reactions to his belches. Dolores’ obsessive house cleaning, by the same token, drove her brother into mad frenzies. If he was reclining in a chair, say, she wanted to vacuum, it was not beyond her to vacuum the chair and Ambrose himself as he read the newspaper, gliding the wide nozzle against his spacious frame with a violent fervor. She would insist, after his protests, that he should have removed himself when he had the chance. Ambrose was inordinately vain about his mustache, a thick brindled bush he assiduously groomed and emphasized by stroking with his fingers as if he were thinking. Occasionally, he actually was engaged in thought while doing this, but more often than not it was just an odd pose he favored. Dolores loathed his mustache stroking almost as much as she despised his mustache itself. She made fun of it, likened her brother’s look with it to a “dirty snide walrus,” and incessantly threatened to shave it while he slept. In turn, Ambrose named his mustache Sparky and treated it like an old buddy only he could understand, often saying things like, “Sparky and I are going to split this bottle of Burgundy,” and then would snicker. More than once Dolores lost her temper altogether at such lines as this, creeping up behind him and kicking him as hard as she could in his ample fanny. In such manner of escalating revulsions and their responses the two perpetuated their acrimony and drove one another bonkers. And yet, one discovers, as the years accrue there is solace in the sameness of daily living no matter who one shares quarters with, for predictability fosters comfort in people. For Ambrose and Dolores living together was organic arrangement, almost a sine qua non of their identities. For too long they saw themselves through the other, unpleasantly so for the most part, but nonetheless a split could have ruined both of them in some cold lonely way. Or such was the latent apprehension. They knew one another when they were young, the pillars of the family, when there was such hope and potential in them. They still needed to cling to that connection, no matter how tenuous, in their very complicated relationship. All the old arguments had been argued ad infinitum, their differences hashed over ad nauseam to no avail, so a pragmatic d├ętente was fashioned to preserve their coexistence. And they skirted around the minefield quite deftly. Most of the time, to be sure, as flare-ups persisted here and there, the occasional donnybrook still reared its vicious head.

One dreary Tuesday in February began unremarkably enough for the two, habit and routine clamping down the tenor of their day. Dolores stirred first from her bedroom at 6:30, descending to the kitchen for coffee and maple oatmeal made in a pot on the stove. Ambrose wakened to her clanging, remaining in bed planning his own more ample breakfast until he was sure she was done cooking. Dolores sat with her steaming bowl, gazing foggily out the window, when her brother arrived to begin cooking his breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, and buttered toast. “Looks like rain coming in,” Ambrose muttered once in peering out the back door. “At least it’s not snow,” Dolores responded. This need to always feel grateful things could be worse was another trait of his sister’s that he despised. He thought of how she always said when people die, well, at least he’s out of his pain, or if they are suffering from a serious disease, well, at least he is still alive fighting it. Moreover, he concluded, that she ought to have known by now that he rather enjoyed a rainy day from time to time, and his comment was not necessarily a pejorative one. “Yes,” he said, “too warm for any snow. A very mild winter this one so far.” Dolores rose now to wash her bowl and spoon in the sink as Ambrose scooped out his eggs and bacon, removed his toast from the toaster, and moved towards his chair at the table. “Thank God,” Dolores said. “Oh, I always loved the snow. Kids play in it and it looks wonderful. I miss it actually.” His sister shook her head in disgust. “It kills people, plain and simple, and that is not so wonderful.” Ambrose ate his breakfast in silence, chastising himself for engaging with her at all. Then he popped outside to the front yard to retrieve the morning newspaper lying near the sidewalk. He knew she’d soon be doing the laundry in the basement, so he poured another cup of coffee and ensconced himself in his leather recliner to peruse the paper. But it wasn’t long before Dolores reappeared with the monstrosity of a vacuum cleaner blaring in his face. He knew she savored running the nozzle all over him and he also knew unless he succumbed early and moved, she’d nail him. But he also perceived that she would judge this abdication as weak and would claim another kind of victory in such a case. Unless he so convincingly ignored her vacuum strokes over his body and nonchalantly continued reading his paper, which would effectually neutralize her broadside. And this is what was transpiring this February morning when the doorbell rang.

Ambrose opened the front door to find a young man in his early twenties wearing plain brown work clothes which did not fit him properly. Too big and hastily put on, it appeared, as the disheveled fellow was looking away towards the street when Ambrose greeted him. “I am here to check the water,” he said, rather tentatively, betraying bewilderment on his face. Ambrose hesitated. “Are you with the water company?” he asked. The young man seemed to think about this a moment with a quizzical expression. “Why yes, of course, I am with the water company.” Ambrose heard his sister ask who was there, and he knew she’d insist on seeing the man’s ID before allowing him in because of all the warnings of crooks posing as service men. But he could not imagine the halting, diffident figure in front of him being there to rob them. And there was something singularly familiar about him too, so the two men were soon in the basement at the far wall behind the bar. “There is the meter,” Ambrose said with a turn of his head. He knew Dolores was at the top of the stairs waiting warily. The young man seemed distracted, uneasy, as he moved closer to the meter and stared oddly at the dials. “It looks good, sir, very good indeed. Levels are quite normal. But I would still like to test the fluoridation by tasting your water.” He kept staring into the dials as he spoke and Ambrose became startled when the meter momentarily lit up with intensely bright colorful lights. “What was that?!” he cried. The young man began away from the meter. Dolores called down if everything was okay. “That is a symptom, sir, that we have more to discover here…about your water.”

Ambrose poured him a tall glass of water from the kitchen sink and he and Dolores sat at the table watching him drink it. He took several big gulps and ostentatiously smacked his lips together trying to extract telltale taste from the water. Then came smaller sips with quick little mouth smacks, followed by washing around a mouthful and gargling. He asked for another glass and guzzled it straight down, and another to drink with a straw and a soup spoon. Then he knocked back a few more glasses while writing in a small notepad, presumably records of his findings. Dolores kept kicking her brother under the table, each time harder, signifying her increasing suspicions of their water man. Finally, she whispered in his ear that she was going to call the police in a minute. Ambrose shook his head and looked incredulously at her. The water man was now sprinkling drops of water onto his tongue and nodding to himself, though Ambrose could see the consternation come over him again and again. This was a troubled soul, he thought, and wondered why he felt like he knew him, like he understood his confusion and sense of distraction? “You don’t really work for the water company, do you?” he finally asked him. The water man sat up straight now, releasing his glass of water, and relief seemed to spread across his face. “No,” he confessed, “I do not.” Dolores frowned. “Well, why’d you come here? And who are you? I’m about to call the cops,” she insisted. “You don’t seem right, son. You look lost, mixed up,” Ambrose added. “Just tell us what this is.” The water man asked for a cup of coffee, Dolores reluctantly heated some up for him. Now he seemed somehow more of a nuisance than a threat to her. She also gave him a piece of her stollen. They watched him slurp his coffee as he ate. He complimented her stollen, noting that his mother always made it around Christmas. “So did ours,” Ambrose smiled. Then the water man grew pensive and inward and it was a minute or two before he began. “I think I must be a very sick man. I cannot remember what brought me here, only that they were chasing me and I knew this is where I belonged. A refuge I could hide in. I just came here like I was caught in the flow of a river.” Ambrose studied him intently, sipping his own coffee his sister brought him. “The water man came by river,” he murmured. “And who is chasing you?” The stranger shook his head, grimacing. “I wish I knew. But they’re always following me and they are hell-bent on destroying me. Very soon they will catch up with me. You are looking at a dead man.” His eyes turned inward. “Have you gone to the police?” Ambrose gently inquired. “I have no descriptions, names, nothing. They wouldn’t believe me.” Dolores piped up unceremoniously: “What about a psychiatrist? “ Ambrose bristled. “Don’t listen to her. Nobody’s dismissing your fear.” Dolores grew exasperated and blurted: “Where’s your family? I mean, when you get yourself in trouble, nobody is going to care or help you like your family.”

The water man rose and looked at his hosts. “You are wrong. Maybe for some it is true, but my family is like a vast lot of quicksand desperate to suck me under. You see, I come from a very large family and I still live at home and can’t seem to leave and every time I do they come looking for me or send people after me. My mother is all alone now except for my sister, and she needs me there. It may kill her if I leave. We are very close. My sister is bad, she can be quite destructive to her when they are alone. She is mentally unbalanced. I work for my older brother at his embroidery factory. I’m the bookkeeper and buyer. My life is a grind but I am trapped and cannot leave without guilt and morbid fear of flopping on my own as poetic justice for being selfish. I have a girlfriend whom I love but she wants to go to California to try to catch on in the movies. I’m afraid she’ll go without me if I keep stalling.” He stopped and gazed at Ambrose in a strange pleading way. “There, I told you my plight. I don’t know why. I’m not right, my head’s not right. I think I’m here because you can advise me. What should I do?” Before Ambrose could answer the water man dug out a huge mixing bowl from a cabinet and started filling it with water. He seemed to know exactly where it was. When the bowl was full, he placed it on the kitchen table. Ambrose became spellbound now, gazing upon the still surface in the clear glass as the water began turning brilliant dazzling colors that seemed to convey all the awe of time and space and the unknowable. Dolores could not see the colors, however, and now Dolores shouted that she was going to call the cops but her brother and the water man did not hear her, they were transported by the magical bowl, which now expanded until it was as big as the kitchen itself, hovering, and Dolores was livid, furious with a vengeance so mean she ran down to the basement and got out the watervac and soon she had it going with its execrable din of suction lowered into the bowl, where Ambrose and the water man, shrunken, were sailing around in an outboard motor boat, having a real blast as the water was calm and so kaleidoscopically beautiful and suddenly on that boat Ambrose had the most magnificent de ja vu of remembering this so perfectly as a dream of his younger days, only it was the younger man in the boat’s dream, the water man. I am the water man, Ambrose realized, the water man is me dreaming this all those years ago. I am the old man in the dream now. The water became rough and they heaved and pitched violently, submerging almost completely as the water man frantically struggled to steer them into safer waters. The splendor of unearthly color already faded from the water, as it turned inky, the terrible deafening drone of Dolores’ watervac ever draining the bowl and pulling the boat down. Ambrose knew their time was limited and there was so much he wanted to say to the water man, urgent counsel he needed to communicate. The boat heaved so badly it nearly capsized and they were bailing water with pails and the watervac drowned out any chance of being heard. But Ambrose had to advise him what to do, he shouted at his boat mate as best he could. The watervac grew louder and the force of its suction became overwhelming and Ambrose in one last brave attempt to say what he had to say lunged towards the water man and got as close as possible to shout: “You must by all means get out of that house! This house! Go to California with Marjorie! You love her! Go anywhere she goes! Siberia! Mongolia! Leave that house now and go with Marjorie! Marjorie! My darling! Wait for me, sweetheart!” But it was all lost in the ear-splitting drone and the mad pull, the water man could not have heard Ambrose at all, although he saw him shouting something his way as the boat tossed and heaved for one final time before the powerful suction of the watervac swallowed them under for good.

Ambrose found himself flat on his stomach, sprawled across the kitchen floor in soaking wet clothes. He was lying in a big puddle of water amid broken pieces of glass strewn around him. He managed to get himself on all fours and saw Dolores standing over him with her arms akimbo, shaking her head. “Well, I suppose you’re all right. Of all the dumb things—dropping that bowl of water while that dopey water man put on his little show for you,” she was saying now. “Where did he go? The water man,” Ambrose asked as he slowly rose to his feet, looking around. “Who, the screwball? He said he had to go to the bathroom and went upstairs. He must be still up there. Go see, so I can clean your mess up here.” Ambrose looked high and low, but there was no trace of the water man upstairs or in the attic or anywhere in the house. He never heard me, he repeated to himself, he must have woken up. Yes, of course, and then gone back to sleep. Whatever the case, the water man was most certainly gone. Ambrose put on some dry clothes and went outside for a walk. He was still quite shaken and needed some air and exercise to think straight. It still looked like rain, he thought he felt a drop. So much of growing old is dreamlike, he thought, the line between real and surreal in the mind becomes blurrier. One lives largely in the past, often an unreliable past at that. But this was something else. He could not fathom it. He began reminiscing about his old flame, Marjorie Theroux, the only woman he ever truly loved. She never really left his mind, but long ago had moved to the shadowy outskirts. Now he envisaged her once more, her lustrous blond coils, pretty blue eyes, her stunning beauty. He heard her lovely happy laugh again. He remembered how they’d walk holding hands on these same streets more than fifty years ago. He saw the bower by some woodland where he’d sometimes steal a kiss from her. He walked by the soda shop they used to frequent, now a drug store. It was drizzling lightly now. He remembered whole conversations, the songs of the day they sang, old friends of theirs, the parties. He thought about the day she left, when they parted with a long hug and kiss at the train station. There was some vague plan that he’d meet up with her in the months ahead in California. But neither of them really believed that he would. Ambrose thought about all this now and began to cry. He was heartbroken and deeply pained with regret. He never saw Marjorie again. Bittersweet were his memories, but he was glad he had them. In fact, he cherished them. He realized now that they were all he had to prove that he had lived.

The End