The toilet flushes beneath the weight of the water Kathleen pours into the bowl, and small pieces of salsa soaked onion, green pepper, and moldy coffee residue float on the surface before spiraling away.
Kathleen knows she must report her clogged kitchen drain with the proper nuance to avoid destroying her chances for romance. Each night she practices, speaking to her birds as if they were ears pressed against a telephone receiver: Silly me, with my luck there's a pearl lost down there too, what with all the oysters I've eaten. And: Perhaps we could meet up over coffee, discuss the pipes, decide how to divide the related expenses. His first name is Paul; she thinks about that often.
She and Paul have lived in the same Victorian for nearly a year -- he in the upstairs and she in the rented basement apartment. She knows him, though they've spoken at length upon only one occasion and over a then unsigned lease. He's a passionate lover -- she can tell because he's always particular about garbage and recycling, sorting and tying neat stacks, which he strings tightly. He's likely a famous musician as well since she hears him sing and play guitar every night between eleven and one in the morning. He rarely has guests; he's single, a homeowner, marriage material.
But she fears Paul might chastise her for being careless with organic waste and that he might refuse to accept the drain clogged solid, even after three bottles of Liquid Plumber. He might spit into the mouthpiece of the phone or try to raise the rent; he might even attempt to evict her. He has grounds -- her canaries violate the lease. Dear Buertie and Peter, both delightfully yellow -- the same shade as the panties she culls from six packs of rainbow underwear and puts on every night before she squeezes lemon juice on her breasts and calls out to her nipples, yes my dearies, yes my little citrus snacks. She does this of course, only after Paul Stinger comes home, and she can hear him moving about through the ceiling.
But that's why she ordered the tulip bulbs. The news of the drain would have to go well if practiced and prefaced with freshly planted, fertile tulips. Would it be a problem if I planted flowers? she asked his machine two months of backorders ago. She received a message on hers in reply: Not at all. The package slip she found on her door yesterday after work marked the date of a long awaited arrival.
She hums as she pulls on the clothing the shower steam did not straighten: a navy skirt hemmed above the knees and a white blouse with large plastic buttons painted to look like metal. Flat pointed shoes, black, because black goes with everything, hair back in a barrette, skin toned acne medicine for the problem on her forehead, powder foundation. And then a wet cloth to her face because the makeup shows, and she prefers raw red nubs to ineffective concealment.
No time for the last item on the morning checklist, so she stuffs the phone and PG&E envelopes into her jacket pocket. She can write the checks at work and surreptitiously use the postage machine.
- - -
The afternoon sun burns hot, and moisture seeps through Kathleen's clothing in unfashionable circles. Fingers slick with mayonnaise, she carries her jacket and an unfinished sandwich. Beside her, the Plexiglas frame on the wall of the bus shelter holds an advertisement instead of a map. Score Public Transit had sold every map display to the Gap. Kathleen reads the newspaper through the face of a Score Today paper dispenser. Each word is like a picture: thick and large here, spaced too widely there. She has no memory of their meaning when the bus arrives, though she did notice the large colored photo of Mayor Norton picking blackberries at the Summer of Fun Celebration.
"Speak up lady. I can't help you if I can't hear you." The bus driver has a plastic bag of celery sticks between his legs and slivers of roughage between his front teeth.
"Does this bus go to Hoover Street?" Kathleen says again.
"That's better. You need to let people know what you want before they can help you."
"Right, this bus, does it go to Hoover Street." Kathleen decides that the driver must be undersexed.
"This bus goes to Hoover Street." A woman says from halfway back in the bus. Kathleen nods and turns to slide a dollar into the fare box.
"It's easier when you use change. Lot's easier when you use the coins instead of the paper," the bus driver says before turning away.
The bus stops at every corner and people get on: men with cell headphones that frame their heads like crowns, adults dressed like college students, young people with shopping bags, a crazy old man who talks across the aisle about the hole in his head.
"20th, 20th and Pine -- transfer here for AMTRAK."
Kathleen's seat is brown and orange and covered in rectangles of waterproof vinyl sewn with stitches that remind her of oversized pores on a human cheek. Beneath the vinyl, the seats are nothing but metal and foam which, as she sits, become increasingly animate till the cushions nearly throb with a heartbeat. Behind her, Kathleen can feel the pressure of knees pressed against the back of her seat. Sweat forms between her breasts.
"Menley. Menley Square." The sidewalk along the far side of the square is cordoned with yellow police tape and a sign warns of danger, unstable building. Kathleen can see the bus driver twirl the firm metal cord of a payphone on the opposite corner. How long has the bus been sitting here? She feels the man behind her fold and cross his legs.
The driver returns, starts the bus.
"Hoover, Hoover Street."
Kathleen stands. The road ahead is flanked by Store it UR-Self garages, and she can just see the sign for Sam's Overnight Delivery above two blocks of corrugated metal siding.
The employees at Sam's Overnight Delivery wear nametags. The one at the counter has a badge that reads "Glenn," and he's looking for a mate. Kathleen can tell by the way he twists his left wrist round like the dough hook demonstrated at Sophie's Kitchen -- like it gives him pleasure, like he's having sex. He brushes the skin under his lips, cradles the phone to his ear and smiles to acknowledge her entrance.
Kathleen leans forward and rests her chin on her open palm. She runs her left foot along the inside contour of her right calf.
A tall brunette already stands at the counter; Kathleen recognizes her as the woman who finally admitted that the bus went to Hoover Street. She couldn't have arrived more than a minute ahead of Kathleen, and Kathleen does not hesitate before commanding Glenn's attention as soon as he sets down the phone.
"Hello," she says.
"What can I do for you?" He takes Kathleen's package slip, while the spurned brunette unfurls a large architectural drawing and flings it across the counter.
Kathleen smiles, though she fears, deep down, that she won't hold Glenn's attention. That he'll abandon her package for the leggy Brunette.
Glenn places a box on the counter between them. "Could I see some ID please?"
Kathleen feel her pockets, though she knows she carries nothing more than the dollar return fare and the bills she has yet to drop in the mail. "I don't have anything."
"Nothing? Not even a gym card?"
She offers the AT&T envelope. "This has my name and address."
"No good ma'am. It's liability. You need an ID if you want to pick up a package."
"I know exactly what's in it." She can feel the run in her nylons as the Brunette notices it. Kathleen's been judged a criminal. Her sweat stained shirt collected from a dumpster, the package slip torn from the doorstep of some wealthy family. "Look, I just spent more than my lunch hour getting down here. I'd really appreciate it if you gave me the package."
"I'm sorry ma'am, I can't do that."
Glenn meets the Brunette's eye as if to apologize for Kathleen's behavior. Then he puts the box beneath the counter.
"My sink's been backed up for over a month!" Kathleen nearly yells before she decides it unladylike.
- - -
Kathleen rises early on Saturday. Sam's Overnight Delivery is only open till noon, and the buses run infrequently on weekends. She hides her misgivings in her tightest jeans and a low cut cotton shirt.
On the bus, she taps her ID with a chewed thumbnail. She hates her photo, which depicts her, one eye closed, the other narrowed to a slit, with two chins and styleless hair that falls flat and greasy from beneath a barrette.
The door to Sam's feels heavy, yet not strong enough to protect her from Glenn's icy stare of contempt or a joking dismissal: It's that much better when you come twice.
"Can I help you?" says an older woman with short permed hair.
"I'm here to pick up my package."
No one else is around, and the woman hardly looks at Kathleen's license before handing over the bulbs.
"Do I need to sign anything?"
Kathleen holds the package in her lap on the bus ride home and practices before the translucent mirror of window. Hello Paul, Hello, Paul? It doesn't matter that she waited nearly one hour for the bus to arrive and that she could have walked back to town in less time, despite the heat and the cumbersome box. Hello, this is Kathleen from downstairs.
- - -
Kathleen changes her jeans to a pair she can squat in before going out to the yard with a small hand trowel. She enjoys the rich scented soil impregnated with remnants of dead weeds that will decay and fertilize.
After the planting, she'll call. What if he's home? If he sounds angry, she'll hang up. Or maybe, say something extra perky, refer to how nice things will look from his bedroom window very soon. Not to worry. She mouths the words in practice, softly, so as not to be overheard. Not to worry. I have a small problem with my drain, but I can take care of that too. I just needed to tell you since you are my landlord and all.
"Hello Kathy." Standing just to her right, shirtless, Paul smiles, a conjured god before her. "You're planting flowers?"
Kathleen nods, her hands streaked with dirt. Paul stuns her in his belted cut off denims and flip-flops. Her eyes are drawn into the spiral of his belly button, and her nipples harden as she becomes anxious.
"I went to Sam's Overnight Delivery today," she sputters.
"I see," he says, and Kathleen can tell that he's overwhelmed by desire for her by the way he looks off to one side and then excuses himself. He walks to the far side of the small dirt lawn to check an unused sprinkler head before retreating to the wooden stairs that connect the back doors of their apartments.
She should have told him then, right then. It would seem contrived to call him that night. He'd wonder why she hadn't brought up the sink that afternoon. He'd think she'd stuffed the drain with coffee grounds herself, just for an excuse to call and talk to him. Flushed and frustrated from the thrill of their meeting, Kathleen knows she has to wait. Just a few weeks. Just long enough for the tulips to grow. Until the stems pop out of the earth like small, green erections.
About the author:
Kirsten Menger-Anderson lives and writes in San Francisco. She is currently learning Spanish and is very happy that she now knows the past tense as well as the present.