My story “Moron Saturday” first appeared in the Commedia issue of Danse Macabre magazine in the Fall of 2009. That edition has since been archived, so I’ve reproduced the story here in case you want to read it.
Let me know what you think.
Professor Hunter rose to slake his thirst. Dreaming about bubbling sylvan springs and sprightly naked naiads, he woke abruptly to find his mouth dry and his tongue scraping about like a rasp on rough pine. Thus he stumbled toward the bathroom, licking cracked lips and steadying his progress with one hand on the wall.
He pulled the light chain, was momentarily blinded, and, as he waited for the return of his vision, groped for the faucet and the glass he kept on the lavatory. Squinting into the mirror he caught his reflection, and this it presented to him: a shifting amalgam of nutty professor, mad scientist, and street urchin with wild rising hair and stubble-strewn jowls. He understood that his students coined clever names for him, and certainly even in his best-groomed state he was no prize, yet the rheumy sight of this animal who was himself curled his toes.
He wiggled his nose against a threatening sneeze, then gave the cold water tap a turn. It obliged him first with a guttural groan, then the sink lurched as the pipes below pounded once, twice, thrice. Soon a rope of yellow liquid trickled out and pooled in the bottom of his glass, while elsewhere in the house other pipes answered with rattlings of their own.
“And what is this?” said the woolly Professor as he held the glass of amber juice to the light. “A stout to be taken at room temperature, perhaps?” He sniffed the cup of murky liquid, considering whether it might actually be fortifying to swallow the stuff, as in days when the privileged flocked to spas to take the foul waters and persuade themselves of cure. Yet Professor Hunter sought merely to quench his thirst, not to restore wayward vitals, so he poured the chaw-spittle down the drain and stumbled further to the kitchen to fetch a glass of milk.
Hunter was not a practical man. Household plumbing and electrical wiring were vast mysteries, delivering him from the howling wilderness and into the comforts of civilization, but still as unknowable and troubling to him as the darkest forest where wild things prowled. He could replace a snapped shoelace, change many light bulbs, even slip a fresh roll of toilet paper onto that ingenious spring-loaded spool, but he hired a local lad to mow his lawn, and such guests as he had, had to pound on his door since the bell button hadn’t worked for years.
He could toss out a toaster if it failed him, replacing it with no remorse the same day. A microwave oven was simply inconceivable. An answering machine? He’d thrown his out in a Luddite fit. A cellular phone? Who had that much to say? A DVR? He wasn’t even sure what a DVR was, but he was sure that it was no match for Iris Murdoch or Philip Roth. A computer? Leave that to the graduate students at Osage University who talk cryptically of nets and webs and other arachnid things.
Plumbing stirred similar aversions, though like human plumbing, he realized its unpleasant necessity. Afraid to turn a tap anywhere in his house, he spent many minutes imagining the pressing consequences of this breakdown, and as his bowels requested their morning attention, he considered how many flushes he could coax from his toilet: the plumbing must be addressed forthwith.
Unschooled in such things, and being of a peer group poorly informed about the practical world in general, Hunter was reduced by his urgency to picking any plumber in the book who would answer the phone this Saturday morning.
He was more than halfway through the listings before he reached an actual human voice. The listing was Spartan: Nape Plumbing, followed by a number. Nape himself answered.
“I seem to need a plumber.”
“Keep talkin’,” said Nape.
And Hunter told a disjointed tale of his pre-dawn visitation with rattling pipes and the yellow water.
“Where’s your house?” demanded Nape. And after getting the address, said, “See ya in nour.”
The gods in Hunter’s heaven appeared to be favoring him, for he had expected to endure convenience store plumbing for at least several days. Yet this good fortune meant he also had to get himself presentable without the benefit of soap and water. There was no time to impose on a colleague’s bathroom, and whom could he ask so that the matter didn’t become department fodder? The campus pool was closed this early in the morning. The neighbor’s hose was too public, and the man was a fool anyway. Hunter was left to his own limited imagination. Could he wash his hair with milk? Brush his teeth with beer?
He settled for liberal doses of stick deodorant, a thorough scraping of his teeth with his fingernail, a dry shave, and a vigorous and partly successful assault with his hairbrush. He selected the freshest looking clothes he could find in his closet, coming upon a tan shirt he’d forgotten he owned, then rushed about his house attempting to give it the veneer of civilization.
How a lone sock found its way onto the front hall table he knew not, but he retrieved it and stuffed it into the pillow case he was carrying when a pounding on the front door startled him.
It was Nape.
“You Hunter? Here to fix your plumbing,” Nape said. “Costs moron Saturday.”
Hunter blinked once. “Oh, yes. My plumbing is awry, it seems.”
“Show me,” said Nape as he stepped past. About his waist was a prodigious leather belt, with tools and devices that swung and clattered as the man crossed the hall. His wife beater revealed an NRA FOREVER tattoo on his shoulder. He had small, dark eyes, much like a wolf’s, that Hunter thought must read him instantly. Nonetheless, Hunter’s meager grooming seemed sufficient now.
“Here’s the bathroom,” Hunter said, tossing the pillow case of gathered laundry into his bedroom and closing the door. “I’ve been afraid to try running any water after what happened this morning.”
“Uh,” said Nape impatiently, scratching behind his ear. He turned the tap and the program repeated itself. Soon the yellow water poured into the sink and down the drain. Nape let it run over his fingers, then held them to his nose and sniffed.
“Old house,” Nape said. “Probly rust in your line’s all. Where’s the shut-off?”
Nape rolled his wolfish eyes. “Basement?”
Hunter lead him down the stairs, to a part of his house he’d not visited for months. Cobwebs snatched at his face as Hunter passed down into the musty darkness. Nape looked around briefly before finding the water line. He ran his beefy paw along the pipe¾a curtain of dust fell¾as he tracked it through the thicket of joists before it disappeared into the floor above.
“Old house. Old pipes. Srust. No doubt. Can fix it. Give you copper. Here to there. Don’t rust. Costs more. Moron Saturday. Got what I need. In my truck. Won’t take long.” Nape unbuckled his tool belt and laid it over a box, then turned and vaulted up the stairs.
No mention of price, mused Hunter. No approval of the homeowner. Was this the dispatch of an industrious workman or the confidence of a predator before prey?
Hunter looked at Nape’s tool belt. A formidable collection of angry-looking devices he couldn’t begin to imagine the uses for. The leather was dry and cracked, and it was worn rough where the tools went in and out of their pouches. He took the ends in his hands and lifted the belt from the box. It surprised him with its weight, though he imagined that meant little to a fit man like Nape. Hunter drew the belt around his waist, but its length was insufficient.
Chagrined, Hunter nonetheless doubted the pipe joiner could parse a sentence correctly.
“Gonna need that,” Nape said from behind, startling Hunter.
“Oh, my,” Hunter said, heart racing from the surprise. He turned to face Nape. “I didn’t hear you come back.” He sheepishly presented the heavy tool belt to the plumber.
Nape held several lengths of copper pipe in one hand and a propane torch in the other. Yet he hooked the belt with a finger and stepped away from Hunter.
“Most likely, rust’s in that run up’ere,” Nape said, pointing to a horizontal length of pipe suspended from the floor joists. He set down his collection of equipment noiselessly and walked over to the shut-off. From somewhere he produced a length of green garden hose that he screwed to the end of the faucet then snaked over to a floor drain Hunter never knew was there.
After Nape turned the reluctant valve, a yellow stream coursed from the hose and circled the drain. “Gotta empty your pipes.”
Hunter watched the yellow liquid pool then gurgle into the drain hole. How long had this been accumulating? he wondered, and he cast back to recall when he might have noticed the water beginning to yellow.
“Stay’n watch if ya want,” said Nape, who fastened a wrench to the pipe overhead.
Hunter thought he might benefit from playing the student, observing as this practical man deconstructed his pipes. But when Nape wrenched the tool violently and the pipes shuddered, Hunter shuddered as well, then hurried up the stairs. He looked back only once to see Nape pausing as he scratched behind his ear.
The house continued its keens and shrieks as Nape attacked its vulnerable underside. Hunter withstood it as long as he could but eventually found he could stay no longer. He pocketed his checkbook, then stepped out the front door and into the open air.
Saturday was commencing. The Professor rocked back and forth on his feet and looked about. He sniffed the air tentatively but caught no scents. Several students wandered up the street from the bus stop toward the university library. He could hear children at play, and from somewhere overhead birds were singing. His lawn would need one more mowing before the end of the season. Soon there would be leaves to rake. Then snow to shovel.
Nape’s truck sat in Hunter’s driveway, dripping wayward vitals. Its color indeterminate. Its shape no longer factory. The windshield was festooned with spider web cracks. Pipes, dark rags, an oil drum, and shapeless unknowns squatted over the bed in back.
As Hunter watched, two eyes separated themselves from the clutter and looked at him. It was a dog, he realized. Mostly black with a blunt, black nose and pert brown brows over its penetrating eyes. The hair on its head was smooth and soft-looking, and two ears stood above in a pair of points.
Of dubious lineage, this dog nonetheless reminded Hunter of a pup he’d had. A good dog too, though overly eager to please. It was forever bringing him squirrels and rabbits, and the boy Hunter was forever digging small graves in the backyard to inter them. A good dog, Tigris. You never forget the names of your dogs, Hunter reflected.
Hunter walked toward the truck, whistling softly to Nape’s dog, which kept its eyes on him but made no other move of response. Hunter was beside the truck now and slowly extended his hand for the dog to sniff.
The dog lunged, barking fiercely, scratching the bed of the truck with its massive paws, the claws scraping against the metal, filling the air with ropes of saliva.
Hunter leapt back, tripping over a weary boxwood and falling hard on his generous backside into a decadent flower bed. For a moment, blackness overtook him, but he shook the jolt from his frame and looked up to see the dog looming over him from the truck, barking madly. Hunter calculated a run to the porch, realizing that he had been saved by wall of the truck bed, which had restrained the vicious dog. “Your bravado,” he said as he grunted upright from the ground, “is clearly limited to the confines of the truck.”
“Shut your yap, Tiger,” came the voice from inside the truck. A hand reached out of the cab and slapped the side of the truck. For the moment, the dog was silenced.
Hunter peered to see a boy sitting within.
“Sorry about Tiger, mister,” said the boy. “Sometimes he just needs a good swat.”
Hunter brushed himself off and straightened his clothes. “I had a dog much like him when I was a boy. He had a similar name, too. I called him Tigris.” Watchful of the dog, Hunter looked at the boy.
“Dogs’r bettern men. Sometimes I think Nape ud be just ‘bout perfect if I could change him into a dog. Sometimes he just needs a good swat, too.”
Hunter studied the boy’s face. It was a beautiful, gentle face. Hunter was captivated by it, and he thought that it rightly belonged on a statue. The boy’s nose came to a point with a slight flare of nostrils. Thin brown brows arched over the eyes, and the soft down of early adolescence decorated his cheek. It was an elfin face. He wondered what connection an angel like this had with a brute like Nape.
“Tiger’s my dog, not Nape’s,” the boy continued. “But sometimes I think Tiger’d rather just hang ’round with Nape’n with me. Yonder he comes.”
Hunter looked back to see Nape emerging from his house.
“Shut your hole, woman!” Nape yelled.
Tiger gave a WOOF of delight, floated effortlessly over the side of the truck, and ran to Nape, who scratched the dog behind the ears. Hunter realized then that had he tried a run for the sanctuary of the porch, he would have made about three steps before the dog had a piece of him in its mouth.
“Diana, how many times I spoke bout talking to strange people?” Nape hollered.
The Professor then realized that the golden boy in the front seat was actually a young woman, named Diana.
“See?” Diana said to Hunter. “Dogs’r bettern men.”
Tiger loped to the back of the truck while Nape approached from the front. Hunter was flanked.
“Job’s done,” Nape said. “Rust inyer pipes s’all. Here’s my bill.” He jabbed a grease-smeared invoice at Hunter. “Costs moron Saturday.”
Hunter looked from Nape to Diana to Tiger, who was looking fixedly at him, then very slowly reached for the checkbook in his pocket. Tiger growled.
“Your price seems reasonable, Mr. Nape,” Hunter offered, though Nape didn’t seem to be listening. “And you’re obviously a swift worker. The American work ethic has taken it on the chin a good bit lately. But it’s good to know there are still craftsmen who take pride in their labor.”
“Whatever,” said Nape, taking the check from Hunter and examining it briefly. “Maybe I should charge more.”
Nape stuffed the check into his pocket then started around the truck to the driver’s side.
Hunter turned carefully to see Tiger squatting on his lawn.
“C’mon, Tiger,” hollered Nape abruptly as he swung into the cab.
Tiger bounded toward the pickup and in one leap was halfway over the bed wall, its hind paws scrabbling on the metal.
The engine exploded to life with a belch of acrid white smoke from the tailpipe, then Nape lurched it down the driveway.
“Well, thanks, then,” Hunter called. “Good-bye, Diana.” He waved, though the woman only stared ahead. “Elfin beauty,” Hunter said after the truck had disappeared down the block. “Actually, rather fetching.”
Inside, he approached his bathroom sink cautiously. He supposed he might need to run the water a while to get all of the chaw-spittle rinsed out. And then it would be time for his forestalled shower and morning grooming.
Hunter turned the taps and was rewarded with abrupt convulsions as the pipes cleared themselves of air.
A practical man would have anticipated this, Hunter thought, recovering from his surprise. And so he left the tap on low and opened the valve for the shower so it could break wind as well.
“I shall examine Mr. Nape’s work while I wait.”
Hunter took himself down the basement steps again, thinking about Diana. “His sister, maybe? His daughter? Surely that delicate young nymph couldn’t be wife to a brute like that! Is she even old enough to be married?”
The copper piping that would deliver him from hygienic disaster gleamed in the harsh light from the bare bulb, and Hunter reached up to touch it. Unfortunately, this pipe, which was carrying the hot water, was itself hot.
Hunter indulged in an Anglo-Saxon expletive as he lurched back, sticking his throbbing fingers in his mouth. With his generous backside he bumped the box behind him, and from it slid Nape’s tool belt, falling with a clatter on Hunter’s toes. Further Anglo-Saxon vocabulary was aired in the musty basement, and had he been able to do so, he would have put his throbbing toes in his mouth.
He stared at the belt and the spray of tools about it, trying to plumb the implications. Was this theft or booty? Would the laborer come looking for his tools? Or might he have a shopful and never realize their truancy? What are my obligations in the matter? And what is that thingamajig is used for?
No doubt Nape would realize his error and return for the tools, Hunter thought. Yet when might that happen? And where would he be when Nape returned? In class? At his office? He couldn’t leave a set of tools like these unguarded on the porch.
He could call Nape and arrange a pick up. That seemed best. And it occurred to him that then perhaps Diana would return as well. Or maybe not. Probably Nape would bring only Tiger.
Hunter decided to be a practical man. He would return the tool belt to Nape himself. He pulled the receipt from his pocket and found Nape’s address at the top. He wasn’t familiar with the road, but he guessed it was a home address, which would be fortuitous as he considered again that fetching nymph, Diana. It seemed unlikely that she would be at a shop, but a home was different.
Hunter carefully loaded the mysterious tools back into the pouches in the leather belt and gingerly limped it to his old but reliable Impala, awaiting him in the garage. He consulted the map he kept wedged in the seat and believed he found Nape’s neighborhood on the east side of the community where he rarely ventured.
On this day, though, he would, to return a craftsman’s tools in a hearty show of gratitude.
Hunter backed his Impala out of the garage and over the escaped fluids from Nape’s truck, then turned it toward the highway that would spirit him east.
Nape’s neighborhood was more rural than Hunter had expected. The ramshackle, working-class homes had petered out a mile or so before, and scrubby pine woods closed on the road from both sides. Soon the pavement gave out and Hunter’s Impala had to stumble across a rough gravel road.
The trees grew even closer and the road narrowed as Hunter finally came upon a battered mailbox that matched the number on Nape’s bill. A pair of crows were perched upon it. Nape’s name had been painted on the box in the past, but only “APE” was left. Beside it, a dirt track barely wide enough for his car penetrated the dark woods. Hunter turned onto it and peered ahead to a small trailer that crouched in a clearing.
No one was about. Nor was Nape’s battered truck to be seen. Piles of piping and trash surrounded the trailer. This, apparently, was Nape’s open-air workshop. The dark pines around him were silent. Not even birds were singing, and Hunter began to question the prudence of his action. Still, leaving the tool belt on Nape’s porch was better than keeping it. So he grabbed the belt and opened the car door. He had to step into the weeds beside the track to get around his car, and the thorns of an invisible vine snatched malevolently at his trousers. He stumbled once before clearing his car and had to reach into the undergrowth to recover a fallen thingamajig. His hand emerged sporting bright red beads of blood, having snagged on the prickles of the vine.
Again his hand went to his mouth as he limped cautiously toward the trailer, half certain that Tiger would burst from the dark trees and tear out his windpipe.
“Hello,” he shouted to announce his presence, calculating how quickly he could drop the belt and bolt for the relative safety of his Impala should dog or shotgun appear ahead. No reply came.
He crept forward a few steps, and lived. He tried a few more. No devil dog approached. No barrel stared him down. A few more steps and he was nearly at the porch. From where he stood, he could hear water running inside the trailer, as though someone was washing dishes. Listening to the water, Hunter realized that he had left his taps running at home.
Hunter knocked on the door and waited. But no one came. Still, the water sounds suggested someone was home, so he hobbled to the small window beside the door and pressed his face against it.
Between the slightly parted curtains within, Hunter saw the acute triangle of a woman’s pubic hair, water coursing around it. His knees weakened as he realized that he was looking upon the elfin Diana in the shower of the tiny trailer.
Hunter licked his dry lips then pressed his face to the glass again. Fetching, he thought as he watched the naked young woman reach and flex and lather and rinse.
“Ain’t no stag party!” barked Nape’s voice from behind.
Hunter spun around and flattened himself against the metal side of the trailer. His hand was bleeding. His trousers were tenting. And his bowels no longer required attention. Nape stood ten feet away, a shotgun in one hand and the chain that held Tiger in the other.
“Y-y-your belt,” Hunter said, lifting the tools sheepishly before him. He could hear his heart pounding.
“Ain’t no free show,” Nape growled, giving a tug to Tiger’s chain. The dog’s mouth was lathering. “Costs moron Saturday.”
Hunter dropped the tools and looked desperately to the left and right. Fight or flight. Wasn’t that the body’s innate response? Or does this man want money?
“Tell you what,” Nape said with a grin. “Give ya three step head start. Then Tiger’s coming after you.”
“I was just returning your tools.”
Nape grinned. “Start runnin.”
So it was to be flight. Hunter looked about again. His Impala was on the far side of Nape. Nape’s truck was on the far side of the Impala.
Hunter wheeled and stumbled toward the trees. The vines tugging at his arms and legs. The low branches slapping his face. The hot breath of the dog on his neck.
* * * fini * * *