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EP335: The Water Man

By Ursula Pflug
Read by Christiana Ellis
Discuss on our forums.
Originally appeared in Anthology Series: Tesseracts # 3, 1991
All stories by Ursula Pflug
All stories read by Christiana Ellis
Rated 13 and up for language

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The Water Man
by Ursula Pflug

The water man came today. I waited all morning, and then all afternoon, painting plastic soldiers to pass the time. Red paint too in the sky when he finally showed; I turned the outside lights on for him and held the door while he carried the big bottles in. He set them all in a row just inside the storm door; there wasn’t any other place to put them. When he was done he stood catching his breath, stamping his big boots to warm his feet. Melting snow made little muddy lakes on the linoleum. I dug in my jeans for money to tip him with, knowing I wouldn’t find any. Finally I just offered him water.

We drank together. It was cool and clean and good, running down our throats in the dimness of the store. It made me feel wide and quiet, and I watched his big eyes poke around Synapses, checking us out, and while they did, mine snuck a peek at him. He was big and round, and all his layers of puffy clothes made him seem rounder still, like a black version of the Michelin man. He unzipped his parka and I could see a name, Gary, stitched in red over the pocket of his blue coverall. I still didn’t have a light on; usually I work in the dark, save the light bill for Deb. But I switched it on when he coughed and he smiled at that, like we’d shared a joke. He had a way of not looking right at you or saying much, but somehow you still knew what he was thinking. Like I knew that he liked secrets, and talking without making sounds. It was neat.

Seemed to me it was looking water–a weird thought out of nowhere–unless it came from him. He seemed to generate them; like he could stand in the middle of a room and in everyone’s minds, all around him, weird little thoughts would start cropping up–like that one. My tummy sloshing I looked too, and seemed to see through his eyes and not just mine. Through his I wasn’t sure how to take it: a big dim room haunted by dinosaurs. All the junk of this century comes to rest at Synapses; it gets piled to the ceilings and covered with dust. If it’s lucky it makes a Head; weird Heads are going to be the thing for Carnival this year, just as they were last, and Debbie’s are the best. Her finished products are grotesque, but if you call that beautiful then they are; the one she just finished dangles phone cords like Medusa’s hair, gears like jangling medals. Shelves of visors glint under the ceiling fixture; inlaid with chips and broken bits of circuitry, they hum like artifacts from some Byzantium that isn’t yet. Two faced Janus masks, their round doll eyes removed; you can wear them either way, male or female, to look in or out.

Gary was staring at them, a strange expression on his face. Like he wanted to throw up.

“Do you think they’re good?” I asked, to stop him looking like that.

“Good enough,” he said, “if you like dinosaurs.”

“I like them. They are strange and wonderful.”

“But dinosaurs all the same,” he said, his eyes glinting like the mosaic visors. I looked for the source of light on his face but couldn’t find it. Maybe he was one of the crazy water men. You hear things, like that’s the way they get sometimes; it comes from handling their merchandise too much. Fish-heads, people call them. After the deep ones, the ones that generate their own light.

“Whose water you gettin’ now?”

“I never called a water man before today.”

“What do you drink?”

“Town water. But I just couldn’t do it any more.”

“Yeah.” It was sad, the way he said it.

“Only cold. For hot we have pots on the stove.”

“Uh-huh. Baths down the street at the pool, am I right?”

“Showers, mostly. They don’t clean the tubs out too often.”

“I guess not.”

“I heard your water was the best,” I said, threading through the junk to the desk where I keep my checkbook. I am a little proud of them, my checks. My buddy and I designed them and he printed them up for me. They’re real pretty, with phoenixes and watermelons. I had to clean his kitchen for a week in trade, but it was worth it.

Gary looked interested, his pop-eyes studying the tracery.

“What do I owe you for this fabulous water, Gare?” I asked, punctuating my signature.

He moved his tongue around in his mouth so that his face bulged. A bulge here, a bulge there: his cheek a rolling ball.

“That is some way out bank you belong to, miss. What did you say it was called?”

“It doesn’t have a name. It’s my own personal bank. Very secure. These checks are not affected by the stock market.”

“And a good thing, too,” he nodded, agreeing with me. But he had his doubts. “I tell you what, miss. First delivery’s usually free. You see how you like the water, you let me know. But the deposit on the bottles, I got to have that.” He glared at me, wanting cash.

I hemmed and hawed, took him on a tour of the premises. Thing was, we had no cash. Well, we had a little, but Deb took it this morning to get her hair done. Half a dozen places in town would rather do your hair on account, and Deb has to pick one that only takes jazz. She can be a prima donna that way. But then, she is the Artiste.

The store is a kind of a hodgepodge. I think she must have a call for the garbage, like a dog whistle; a supersonic whine that only it can hear. Because she cares about it. Garbage is her job; Deb rebirths obsolete appliances, toys, anything thrown away, nonorganic. The ones that don’t biodegrade, not quickly. It’s recycling, only more so; this way they get an extra life on their slow way back to Earth. She makes it into art: sculptures; costumes for Carnival; Heads, mostly. She takes hockey helmets, the domes from those old-style hair dryers, hats, headbands. Anything to go around a head. Hot glue gun, solder, she glues things to them: taken apart washing machines; orphan computers; microwave ovens. The grunts love it. Come February, they buzz in here like flies, picking up a couple of Heads apiece. Grunts have to wear something new every night of Carnival. A good thing, too: jazz. When it first comes in, I just like to do nothing, holding it all morning. It makes my skin happy. Deb doesn’t like it; I don’t do any work. She comes home, I’m sitting on the floor, playing with the money. She yells, sends me out to the co-op for a year of rice and beans.

Gare and I passed a rack of toys. Thirty years of Christmas, stacked up to the ceiling lights. Between the caved in Atari monitors and the bins full of busted GoBots, almost like an anachronism, was a shoe box of those little plastic domes where the snow is always falling. Gary stopped and picked one out, held it up to the light; a striped yellow fish danced among ferns. Once there had been a thread holding it suspended, but now it floated on its side: gills up, dead. He turned it over and over, like if he just waited long enough, and prayed hard enough, that fish would leap to life.

“It’s nice,” I said, my feet betraying me, shifting me from one to the other. “I don’t think I ever noticed it before.”

“Nice? It’s amazing! You don’t know how long I’ve been looking for something like this! Look, here’s the slot for the battery. It’s got a light bulb–this one lights up in the dark!”

“So it does.” His enthusiasm made me edgy. I waved the check like a slow flag, hoping he’d change his mind about my watermelons.

But he didn’t. “Look, miss. I’ll take this fish for the deposit. But from now on it’s got to be jazz. If you want to keep getting the water.”

“Hmm. Maybe town water’s not so bad.”

He laughed. “It’s your funeral.”

“I’ll give you a call, Gare.”

“Sure. If you can find me.”

I’d gotten off easy and he was mad. It was just his luck I’d had something he wanted. “Thank-you for coming so soon after I called,” I said, trying to placate him.

“It’s very rare,” he grumped. “Collector’s material. I can sell it for a week of jazz uptown.”

But you won’t.

“No problem. I didn’t even know we had it.”

“No kidding.” It was that look again, only in his voice; his hand wrapped around the toy,
like he was saving it from something. From me. What did I care. He was almost out the door and then he stopped, staring at the shelves of Heads again. “You make those?”

“I put them together. But my partner, she’s the designer.”

“She a healer, right?”

“Uh-huh.”

“It shows.” He nodded at the Heads, looked down at his opened hand, at the fish. He
chuckled. It made me look at him, his handsome face, a big grin cutting it in two. You wanted to like him when he grinned. And his hands knocked me out. The brown backs opening to velvet palms, soft and shocking baby pink. Yeesh. I wished I could have hands like that.

He did his other voice, cradling the fish like a baby. “I is going to fix this fish,” he crooned. “This is a poor sick fish and needs mending.”

The guy was not for real. But his water. “You a fish doctor too, Gare?,” I asked, only half sarcastic. He turned on like a light bulb when I said that.

“That’s very good, dear. Very, very good.” He laughed, a happy laugh from deep down, and for once he didn’t look like I made him sick. I was even afraid he wanted to give me a hug; his huge padded arms windmilling towards me like that. I backed away into the warmth; it was freezing, standing there in the opened door. “It’s a kind of a side-line, my fish doctoring,” he explained. “Like a fiddle. You know what a fiddle is?”

“Yeah, yeah,” I said, “Economics 101.” I slammed the door while I had a chance. He grinned, turning to cross the road; his feet leaving boat sized holes in the slush. In the middle he stopped to turn and wave again. He was still chuckling when he gunned the van, his big head rolling like it was on bearings. “Pure spring,” read the hand-lettered sign on the side. “A drink for sore throats.” Weird. Like “a sight for sore eyes.”

#

Three weeks to go. Deb sleeps at the studio, brings me the new designs in the morning. Flavour of the week is headbands; I’ve been stringing plastic soldiers onto lengths of ribbon cable. You know the stuff: rows of tiny coloured wires all stuck together, for connecting computers and all. When they’re strung each soldier is painted to match a different strand of wire. “Rainbow Warrior,” Deb calls ‘em.

Two grunts came in this morning and bought Heads. Red Heads, blue Heads; colour is big this year. One also bought a box of old electronic parts, said he wanted to make his own. An arty grunt, yet. He was pale and like his friend wore a grey knee length wool coat. They both looked young. But lately it seems like all the grunts look young: young and spooked.

They made half scared google eyes, told me it was their first time in a place like this: strictly non grunt. Said they worked for banks. Tellers, must be: coats too thin for managers. It almost doesn’t rate as a grunt job, being a bank teller. Too servile. Seems like it takes less and less to be a grunt these days. How sad.

“You mean there still is banks?” I asked, doodling on my creative check book. I know there is still banks; I just wanted to make them nervous. I’m bad when it comes to young grunts. But jobs. For money. Geez.

#

The secret life of grunts. I do wonder what they think about. They must be on town water. I can’t imagine ordering it in and still being a grunt. I can’t remember ever even wanting to be a grunt, but I guess grunts want to be grunts. They must. Or else why would they? It’s not like you have to be a wage slave. There are other ways.

Another one came in this morning: a creepy older one. He bought my window. It’s something I do to relax, when I’m on break from Deb. I climb into the display window and arrange the junk into scenes, make a little Chaos out of the Order. Or is it the other way around? I forget which. Anyway, this time I’d found a plastic Doberman and hot glued its mouth to Barbie’s crotch. I know there are worse things on this Earth than a little dog cunnilingus, but even Deb thought it was maybe a little much. The grunt, however, loved it, asked me if I did gift wrap. I did: ripping a strip of red off the velvet curtains left over from Synapses’ previous incarnation I tied it around the dog’s neck. He loved it, he told me, in that creepy voice; he loved the store and he loved me. “Sure,” I said, but I had to get a glass of water right after he left just to get over his face. Maybe that’s how it happens to grunts; they get old when the inside faces out too long, when instead of being scared they’re scary. And to think I cater to that market. Yeeagh.

#

I used to think all water was the same. It was what you drank for breakfast, had a little coffee to stir in if you were lucky. It was a grunt drink. From Gary I learned otherwise. This morning I brought a quart up to the kitchen where I was working. I heated it up on the stove, and sort of meditated, tried to think how Gary would think it if he was doing the thinking. While I was waiting I amused myself pushing the eyes into a couple of old dolls. I sliced the faces off, attached them one to another with bands of elastic. One male doll, one female, the way you’re supposed to do them. A type of Janus. It’s not a big seller, but it’s lasted; every year we do a few. When the water was warm I put the mask on and drank, using a straw. I’d pierced the lips for straw holes–grunts won’t buy anything they can’t drink in. The water went down, warm and wet, and I felt like there were revolving doors inside me, turning, and all of a sudden I could go out the other way. And then I could see the whole deal: how we lived; how we did up our place; what we wore and what we ate: it was all because of drinking the town water. And this thing about getting your own water, it really worked. I could see how tacky it was: Synapses, Deb’s and my life. A cheesy, no-class deal, except for some of the Heads. Like the Janus Head. It was clean, a nice idea made flesh. I kept it on, poking around the place, looking out the eyes of Gary’s water. It was fun. I saw things I hadn’t seen before, like which things fit together and how come. I poked around in shoe boxes all afternoon, looking at junk.

Every day they bring more in. I wonder where it all comes from. Junk out of plastic, junk out of metal. They don’t make so much junk as they used to, but boy, when they did, was it ever a going concern. It must have employed thousands of people, the junk industry. I wonder where they got the raw materials from. I mean, what is that cheap-o plastic made of, anyway? What natural substance has been humiliated in its service? I kind of got lost in the beauty of it, the beautiful ugliness of the cheap plastic objects I was handling. It occurred to me then they were beautiful precisely because they were ugly, and I even know a few people like that. And the more my thoughts headed off in that direction the gladder I became I work for Deb. Because, you know, I used to feel sorry for them. We’d be shopping for clothes at Thrift Villa or wherever, and there’d be shelves full of broken down toasters and waffle irons, and I’d think how nobody cared about them, not even my Mom. Everyone always wanting the new one: clean ones, without any scratches or deformities, in good working order and with high IQ’s. That is why I love Deb so much. She was the first person to see that all that old stuff wanted to still be used; it wanted so badly to have a purpose for us. So Deb thought and thought of how to use it, and finally she came
up with the whole style of wearing garbage to Carnival, and now everyone does it, us and all the grunts.

#

Things have been different lately, I don’t know why. Funny thoughts come to me while I work. That we are like fish in an aquarium, looking out at the world. I think it’s since Gary came that it’s been different. I never did any of that computing but my buddy Danny, the one who does the checks, he told me it is like that. Programming. It is like going into inner space. And I think maybe Gary’s water is like that too, like going into space. To think I never knew. No wonder he was looking at me like that.

#

Two weeks. Carnival soon. I’ve started a new window. I work on it during breaks. TV sets done up like aquariums. Somehow they look the same: a clear glass box. I have a milk crate full of plastic fish; I string them from the inside of the TVs so they look like they’re swimming. Take the picture tubes out, of course. And one real aquarium. A glass fish bowl I found upstairs that fits perfectly into one of the smaller TVs. I went down to the store and bought live fish for it. I paid for them with some of the grunt money. The dog grunt money, to be precise. I lied to Deb, told her Danny gave them to me, that I washed his floors for him. She doesn’t like me doing anything that costs money. Also she doesn’t understand I have to make my own art sometimes. The windows. That’s my art. That and the thoughts, the weird water ones.

#

Out of water. Once you get the new water, it’s hard to go back to the old. I haven’t thought so much in years. Even Deb likes me better, gives me time off in the afternoons to work on the window. It’s very beautiful, now, almost finished. I wonder how I ever did dogs and dolls. I could never go back to that now. Phoned Gary but there was no answer. Shit. Town water sucks.

#

Don’t forget to dream. To bring in the new world. Otherwise the old one just keeps rolling on. Death as predecessor to rebirth. The seed, sleeping in the earth. The purpose of winter. Subtle changes taking place, deep in the darkness underground. Winter, Carnival, bringing back the sun. New windows. Fish televisions? But what is the death? The underworld. Being fish. What will we be, when we’re not fish?

#

First day of Carnival. The grunts pour into the street, displaying their wares. Who will buy, and who will be bought? The one time of year they get to ease up. Bread and circus. For two weeks they live what is ours the whole year through. I felt so still, so empty inside. Deb was out, being photographed for something. I sat in the window, watching the grunts parading, wearing their garbage regalia. They were beautiful: moving in slow motion, with dream smiles on their faces. They looked happy. I recognized some of their Heads as ones we’d done. They smiled and waved at me, sitting among my fish TVs. Who is looking in and who is looking out? It is like the Janus mask. Tomorrow I will wear it.

#

I feel so still. In Carnival they act it out, the death and rebirth. But this year it’s like it’s real: Janus eyes in the back of my head. Gary came. He grinned and gesticulated, stamping his feet on the other side of the glass. He waved his hands. I wanted to see it, his beautiful skin, but he was wearing mitts. He brought the water. He carried it into the window where I was sitting, and we each had some. It was cool and clean and good, running down our throats in the cold morning. When we weren’t thirsty any more he made me come outside, showed me how Synapses’ window was like a television too, or an aquarium, and I the fish in it. I knew where there was a big box of grease crayons in the back, and we drew it onto the glass: the outline of the screen and the control panel. I even found a fish costume in a drawer of stuff Deb did before there were Heads.

#

He sat beside me for a long time, and we looked out the window, part of the display. A big quiet black man and a thin white girl dressed up as a fish. The Carnival faces passed us, a white dressed throng, wearing Heads made of all their old stuff, and I was content as I’ve ever been. Finally understanding it, the meaning of Carnival. The old flesh dying to the new. They passed with the skeleton then, an effigy held high above their heads.

“Whose death is it this time, Gare?” I asked.

He put his big mitten out, covering my knee. “It is the death of Death.”

“And the birth of Life?”

“Yes.”

“That’s what I thought. I’m glad I’m here to see this one.”

“It is an interesting time.”

He rose stiffly in his great padded knees, wearing a parka and thick quilted pants like always.

“I will be going then.”

“I’m glad I know you, Gary.”

“I, too. I will be coming by from time to time, to see how you are doing.”

“Goodbye, Gary, goodbye.”

#

Roses. It will be the next window. Flowers will bloom out of all the televisions there are. In the meantime it snows. Soft white snow falling like it does in a plastic bubble of fish, its string repaired. It sits on top of one of the televisions, where Gary left it for me to discover. Its light bulb glows softly in the darkening day.

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