Dinty scratched the bald spot on Stanley the stuffed Chihuahua’s head. “I was getting headaches until I started wearing two,” he said, tapping the earbuds in his ears with his index fingers. Both were attached to the cell phone in his shirtfront pocket. “Now all my calls come in stereo, like a voice inside my head. When Mr. Orly calls, he sounds like the voice of God.” Mimicking his boss’s deep baritone, he said, “Dinty, public toilet two in Tower Three has crap smears in it. Get over there with your brush.”
He petted Stanley’s side, curled up in his lap. “Mr. Orly is like every boss, absolutely obsessed with smears.”
Taking the earbuds from his ears, he offered them to Stanley. “Here, do you want to listen? I’ll call you and I can be the voice of God. ‘Stanley, stop shedding on the man’s uniform.’”
The phone rang, caller ID read, Mr. Orly. “Oops, speak of the devil. I better take this.”
Dinty was one of twelve full-time janitors in the Portland Towers, three cylindrical columns rubbing the gray belly of the overcast sky above. The buildings were state of the art when they were constructed in 1961, but now they were concrete monstrosities with leaky plumbing and slow elevators.
Dinty was a big collector of ’60s retro kitsch and being able to live inside a giant monument to that era of snappy colors and chic trinkets was like living in a dream. He didn’t mind that the only way he could afford to live there was as the janitor. He saw himself as more of a caretaker in a museum, looking after precious artifacts, than a dumb lug with a toilet snake.
He had a small basement unit crowded with his vintage treasures, like his grandmother’s collection of spoons. It had a small spoon with the state seal inlayed in enamel on the end of the handle from each of the fifty states in the nation, and they hung in a cherry wood rack that had individual slots for each of them. Dinty’s grandmother had willed them to him, knowing he would take good care of them.
He agreed with her that the commemorative state spoons you found in gift shops in today’s truck stops along the interstate couldn’t compare in quality to those from the ’60s that made up her collection. Hers even included a rare spoon from Puerto Rico. She and Dinty used to argue over whether it belonged in the set or not, since Puerto Rico wasn’t an actual state but a protectorate. Dinty kept that spoon in the sugar bowl with the sugar cubes. But he still polished it with the others every weekend.
Dinty put his earbuds back in. “Hello, Mr. Orly, I’m on my way.”
Mr. Orly always called him the minute his lunch hour ended. He was original hardware and had been part of the Portland Towers since the beginning. He often told Dinty he recognized a kindred soul in him and that was why he rode him so hard. It took a special person to manage three buildings full of so many lives, and he thought Dinty was the man for the job once he retired next year.
Mr. Orly’s voice rumbled in stereo in Dinty’s head. “Dinty, lunch is over. A resident has a plumbing issue.”
Dinty could guess who it was. “Residence number?”
“Twenty-three-oh-nine. They requested you. That’s a good sign, Dinty. You want the tenants asking for you. It means you’re on the right track.”
Twenty-third floor, farthest from the elevator and on the right. The Widow Bobcake. Dinty had been called up there a lot recently. First it was her disposal that had a problem, then it was her washing machine, and just yesterday her refrigerator, but that turned out to have simply been unplugged.
“I’ll take care of it, sir.” He set Stanley on the floor and grabbed his tool bag on his way out.
Mrs. Betty Bobcake met him at her door. She was a heavy woman in her sixties who resembled a German hausfrau. “Oh, Dinty, you’re a lifesaver,” she said, sucking on something that smelled like hard candy, apple flavor. Just like with his other visits, she grabbed his gray uniform sleeve and pulled him inside.
“It’s this way.” She whisked him through the living room, down a short hall to the bedroom and into the bathroom. “I’m so embarrassed,” she said as she released him with a slight push toward the raised toilet seat.
It was plugged.
“Don’t be. It happens to the best of us, Mrs. Bobcake,” he said as he reached for the toilet plunger in his tool bag.
“Oh, Dinty, I think by now you can call me Betty. Even my husband never had to do this for me.”
As he plunged the toilet plunger into the toilet, he wondered about these recent visits to her unit. Mr. Orly had told him that sometimes it wasn’t about the toilet or the leaky faucet, but it was the tenant who needed fixing, and the Widow Bobcake seemed lonely. “Betty, when did your husband die?”
“Years ago, back when I was thin. Here, I’ll show you a photo of us,” she said and left. When she returned she was carrying a silver-framed wedding picture. She held it out for him to look at as he paused his work with the plunger. An old man stood in the center, next to him was his young bride, blonde and willowy. Both were smiling at the other, like grandfather and granddaughter. There were others in the photo, but they were shadows compared to the bride and groom.
“You look very happy,” he said and plunged again.
“How did he die?”
She held the photo to her bosom, gazing at it quietly. “Oh,” she sighed, “I guess I can tell you. He died right here, on this very toilet, just like Elvis, with his pants around his skinny ankles and a turd bobbing in the bowl.”
Dinty stopped plunging and stared at the toilet. It was a typical ’60s light blue number. He had no trouble picturing the Rat Pack taking turns filling its bowl and flushing.
“I kept it, you know,” she said, almost a whisper.
“Yes. At first I thought the police had made a mistake when they left it behind. I thought it might be evidence, you know, in case they wanted to check it for poisons, so I kept it in a Tupperware bin in the freezer. But the coroner ruled it a natural death, heart attack brought on by strain.”
Dinty knew he was supposed to say something, but instead he pushed down the toilet’s handle. The bowl began to fill, but the swirling of the blue water didn’t commence, instead it rose slowly toward the rim, and Dinty rushed in with the plunger again but to no avail. It overflowed, a pool of blue on the white tile floor.
“Oh crap!” Dinty cursed, then caught himself. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Bobcake. This is some clog. I’m gonna have to use the snake.”
Still in her own thoughts, Mrs. Bobcake drifted on. “They said I married him for his money because he was so much older than me, but that was never true. He wasn’t nearly as famous as Elvis, but he was famous amongst those he worked with, so I kept it even after the police said they didn’t need it. I stacked chickens on it, frozen steaks, vegetables, whatever went into the freezer. Eventually it was swallowed up by the frost and it became my hidden secret. Until the other day when the refrigerator was unplugged and everything thawed.”
It was now that Dinty took notice of the empty Tupperware container on the counter next to the toilet. It was yellowed and cracked with age, like the enamel inlays on the spoons in his grandmother’s collection.
“It won’t hurt him, will it?” she asked, her voice soft, dreamy.
“Yes, this snake you’re going to use.”
He put his wet hand softly on her shoulder. “No, Betty, he won’t feel a thing.”