BY LAURA WYTHE
Copyright is held by the author. This story placed second in the Gritlit 2005 literary competition.
ALLEGRA GIOVANNI is used to seeing this young man and his helper knee deep in sewer sludge. It is her basement that keeps him coming, floating as it does on a high water table like the Doge’s palace in Venice. It’s because of the hydrostasis, he tells her.
She likes Tony Di Cicco. He responds quickly to emergencies — cast iron pipes that heave and break beneath an old dowager, her arteries thick with rust and varicose with the wandering roots of thirsty maples. This day, on a Friday morning, he calls ahead to tell her that he has an hour to do that other work that they had discussed, a special favour for her.
Margaret Campbell at the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation is trying to reach the municipal Building Code and Standards offices. Methodically she goes up the list of names, knowing it’s Friday morning and everyone there is likely doing as she is, following tangents rather than addressing thorny problems. Some decisions are best left to Monday, as though the weekend has the ability to act as an intervention, a last chance to pray (if you believe in that) for a hopeless case.
Victor B. is such a case. Another mental health survivor, he’s bounced into her caseload three or four times. Do his social workers really believe that finding him a subsidized rental unit will solve all his problems? Look at his file. He hasn’t lasted more than three months anywhere. Depression and psychotic episodes. Numerous suicide attempts. It’s the same information that Victor volunteered freely in the interview. She called the men’s shelter to confirm it.
Twirling paperclips on the end of a cheap pen, Margaret Campbell asks herself, where do I place this man? In a co-op with young children? In a building with seniors? Or in a complex down on Water Street where gangs terrorize the residents? What Victor really needs is a half-way house or group home, if not institutional care. Unless divine inspiration hits on the weekend, Victor will be put on an eighteen month waiting list.
She chooses to close his file this morning and get to work on another project with fewer life or death overtones. Dialing her way through the City Hall directory, she reaches, at last, one Paul Woldsley, Civil Engineer. She explains the situation to him. “We have an elderly client, quite elderly actually but very active and still in her own home. She’s amazing when you consider that she’s almost a century old. The problem is that her house is even older. We’ve been able to help her with the roof, with pipes in the basement — and what I’m looking for is some item in the building code to cover toilets.”
“Toilets in a public or private facility?” asks Paul. He puts down his bagel and cream cheese, takes a gulp of coffee, noting the wash of crumb and cheese that remains on the coffee surface. His mustache needs another trim. He wipes his upper lip on a napkin, then sticks his tongue into the coffee to clean it up.
“It’s a single family unit.” Margaret sighs. “It’s this woman’s home. I want to replace her toilet, preferably with a new one but the old one — probably the original toilet in the house — isn’t non-functional, technically speaking.”
“You want to replace a toilet that’s working fine?” Paul notes the time down in his logbook, takes Margaret’s name again, settles in for a long discussion. He’s never heard of anything so stupid.
Tony carries in boxes, laughing at her expression. It is Christmas again for Mrs. Giovanni, another New Year’s celebration. So little new comes into the house anymore. Her front walk and steps are swept clean of snow. The driveway has been shoveled. He can walk right in through the front door without taking his shoes off. He is wearing his good shoes today. It’s a clean job.
Allegra holds the door twice for him to bring in two cartons packed with heavy porcelain, not the kind one eats from, no, she laughs, thinking one could make a large salad in the clean bowl if it were spring when the greens were at their best, but Tony wouldn’t go for that, the coarse, old country way of celebrating. Like a child, she wants to grab and open the boxes herself to see what he’s bringing in. But Tony is a busy man and can’t take her interfering.
The plumber has often heard about that the old toilet. It runs with a roar, on and on. Every flush chains the old woman to it — she can never flush and run. Flush, wash her hands, pull the handle up, wash her hands again. And still it roars, passing water through cleanly, passing water from the Great Lakes through her toilet into the Thames River. Mrs. Giovanni’s toilet the source of the Thames. Imagine her water bill.
“She’s been talking about the toilet for months now,” says Margaret, “and she’s not a complainer, not like some. She keeps the house up, the wallpaper and paint and cleans the windows. She put down new flooring on her own two years ago, though I don’t know where she got the money for the tiles. Donated she claims. Nice ceramic tiles. She’s Italian and a bit mysterious. Calls me ‘the nice lady who paid for her roof.’”
“So what about the toilet?”
“It doesn’t flush right. Some seal is broken and the toilet is so old we can’t find a replacement.”
Paul is finished his coffee and bagel. He checks his moustache in a mirror he keeps in the desk drawer with the files. His moustache is just a hair long, barely due for a trim, not much of a job.
“What exactly do you mean, it doesn’t flush right?”
“It runs. You know, the water keeps cycling through.”
“Has she tried pulling up the handle?”
“Oh sure. She does that all the time. She’s on a pension and can’t pay for a big water bill. She doesn’t even use city water for her garden. She collects rainwater, has an irrigation system rigged up. It’s amazing.”
“Yeah, but I don’t understand about the toilet.” Paul almost has his mustache trimmed. Damn, he’s found a grey hair.
Margaret sighs. “This woman is so old she’s almost bent over in half. She still has all her faculties, lives on her own and she wants to be able to flush her toilet and walk away. She says — are you listening to this — that at her age, time is too precious to waste waiting for the toilet to flush.”
“I see,” says Paul, the grey hair still there, tweezers at home. “So why don’t you order a new one?”
“You know the adage — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
“Yeah,” and Paul laughs. “You want me to see if we have any toilets lying around.”
“You know, that’d be great,” says Margaret. She gives him her number.
It is very important to her, this toilet business. Two weeks ago, on Saint Paulinus’ Day, Allegra Giovanni prayed, God, you made St. Paulinus an outstanding exemplar of Divine love and the Faith that conquers the world, and added him to the role of Saintly Pastors. Grant by his intercession that we may persevere in Faith and love and become sharers of his glory and replace the broken toilet. Amen.
That very night Allegra dreamed that she had moved. The light was better in the new house, the climate warmer, the country older, more civilized and warmer like she just said. In her dream, she walked about discovering this empty house. The main rooms were fine, she could tell at a glance, for in this dream, the walls were cut away like a doll’s house, exposing rooms as though the dollhouse was a stage for a Verdi opera. Any furniture would fit, any social occasion meet with success. On she went to the bathroom. Why not the kitchen, you ask? Likely it was the kitchen once, in another dream years ago, and the bedrooms years before that. The bathroom was the only room downstairs with a door. The only room she couldn’t see into.
Fortunately, the chorus and singers seemed to be having lunch. Allegra crossed the stage and opened the door.
The bathroom was huge, tiled with tiny bits of glitterae, rose-coloured on the walls, warm Naples yellow on the floor. The room seemed empty; her eyes stopped on nothing until they found the bathtub just on the other side of folding glass doors. It was sunken into a terraced patio in an enclosed garden. The tub was filled with goldfish. Allegra was deeply satisfied. She looked forward to the challenges of bathing there; wondered at privacy, at how she would taste to the golden carp, how she would never have to use soap again.
She turned and looked into the large bathroom again, discovered the toilet. How had she missed it? It occupied a modest space but it did have some prominence, two steps up to the throne, the tile shining white, almost brilliant like diamonds but with a slightly milky cast that takes on the rippling shimmering tones from the other tiles — rose and yellow and the colours from the sky, the garden.
Allegra sighed as many others would, with disappointment. There was a small problem. The toilet was plugged.
Without hesitation Allegra stepped forward, reached into the cold, clear water. She pulled from the toilet a clean white towel and flung it into the air so that it vanished. Gone.
Paul knows dozens of landlords with old toilets stashed away in the basement, garage or backyard of houses they rent out. They believe that everything has value, is a saving for some future repair or emergency, only so much of the stuff is junk. Paul thinks they’re really trying to save on tipping fees at the dump. When they have to, they put out the junk in bits on Spring Clean Up day but soon that’ll be useless — the city’s moving towards a system of tags for garbage bags.
“What will the big families do?” cry the newspapers.
“What were they thinking in the first place,” is Paul’s answer.
He ducks out of the office, avoiding some paper work, telling himself that he’ll find someone with a toilet they’ll “donate.” He’ll swing by a few addresses, building sites, and the house too — to check on the dog — that kind of thing. The grey hair is bothering him.
On that bright winter morning in January Allegra gets her first new toilet. Not just new to her but never used by another soul. The priest could bless it with holy water!
The tank is slightly curved into an elegant half-circle. The base is narrower than the old, leaving archeological layers of the bathroom floor exposed. If her nose were sharper, she’d smell the old piss of her boys and theirs, her husband and father. Still, the base fits snugly over that hole in the floor, the one she makes a point of seeing. As though there was some magic in her old toilet, she has to see the hole to know that the new one can carry away the waste that it won’t simply disappear through a sleight of hand, as the towel had in her dream.
Tony gives her a look that tells her she must leave so that he can get his work done. He only wants to be here an hour. Allegra has heard him tell his fiancée on the little phone that he’ll only be an hour and asks her to wait for him. Then he carried the phone outside onto the porch to finish the conversation.
Allegra peeks in at the new toilet. It looks shorter than the other. She’ll be able to tell for sure after Tony has gone and she is left alone to use it. His test flushes don’t count; don’t work either. The balls of toilet paper that he tosses in are thrown right back up by the flush. He has to eel that nasty pipe in the basement again. A shame, a shame. He’s wearing nice clothes today, leather shoes. Tony told her that the pipes will need to be dug up, maybe in the spring, because there is no way he can get the eel past the join.
Allegra will call that nice lady, Margaret, after he leaves.
His little phone rings again. Allegra can hear him on the basement stairs, plaintively telling the fiancée to just wait, that he is almost done. On the landing Tony tells her that if she can’t wait then he will see her the next day but he is very disappointed and tells her “I love you” into the phone.
The walls of Allegra’s old house are papered thickly. Voices don’t carry so much as permeate, stick. Tony’s “I love you” to the fiancée sticks somewhere along the wall above the third or fourth step, somewhere along the back section of the roof of Tony’s mouth. He has to repeat the “I love you” part again, then shouts it once more. Is the girlfriend deaf?
Tony returns to his work, flushes the new toilet a couple more times. He warns Allegra that it might back up, maybe once a year, explains that it is one of those water-saving toilets, then he gives up his explanation, still thinking to catch his fiancée and mistaking Allegra’s smile of encouragement for senility. \
While he packs the old toilet carefully into the new American Standard toilet cartons and ties them with cord, Allegra makes tea.
Paul drives slowly by the new Men’s Shelter just on the other side of the tracks along Bathurst Street, keeping his eye out for toilets. He sees a pile of computer equipment recently stacked against a dumpster and parks the van. A couple of processors look intact. He grabs some screwdrivers and strips the memory, hard drive and motherboards. Then he heads down Ridout Street, stops in behind the Hydro building, in the yard where every piece of retired equipment the city’s ever owned is stored.
Paul feels like an ass, showing up to ask after a toilet, so he just shoots the breeze with the yard manager, and heads out again to his house to find the tweezers. He’s decided to give up looking for the toilet. He’s no Rick Ranger.
“I can’t believe you did that,” Rona says to Margaret over coffee. “You asked someone at the City to look for a toilet?”
“It was the only avenue I hadn’t tried.”
“You’ll be the laughing stock.”
“But think — you’re 97 years old and waiting for the toilet to flush — I can’t get past it.”
“You better. You’re screwed if the manager finds out. There are protocols to follow.”
“Right. And I took my chances with the City rather than face the certain scorn of The Dominatrix.”
Rona laughs, discretely, remembers to stagger her schedule just off from Margaret’s. She’ll distance herself from this co-worker over the next few weeks, just in case there’s any fall-out.
Allegra pours out one cup of tea and waits for Tony to come into the kitchen for his payment. The young man makes a slight, embarrassed cough as she hands him the cup. He’s too rushed to sip tea, a good looking young man, a boy growing into a man with hands too big and calloused for such fine things as china cups, although his eyes, they appreciate fine things.
Tony reaches past old Mrs. Giovanni and pours the tea down the drain, all except the last quarter inch and passes the cup back to her. She whirls the leaves into the saucer, intones advice for the weekend, and more.
“Tony,” she says, “you have the priceless jewel of kindness in the case of your heart but you hand out love to someone who only wants baubles.”
He listens to every word — the compliments, the thick warnings and insights into his life — look at how old she is.
When he is gone, Allegra sits down to drink her own tea. She calls Margaret about the blocked drain and the saintly woman says, yes, yes, we’ll get a work order going and says, yes, yes, we’re still looking for a new toilet.
Allegra tells her that that job is done, that she is satisfied with the toilet she has. “Don’t worry, don’t worry,” she tells Margaret. “The drain in the basement is broken again. You’re a nice lady, you can fix that.”
Margaret sits at her desk, taking in the fact the toilet problem “is fixed” and wonders how. With her pen, she traces around a paper clip that lies on the back of a memo pad, adding to the jumble of tracings already there.
And she calls the civil engineer at City Hall, but he’s out. She leaves a very clear message telling him not to bother, that the old woman has died, suddenly, and won’t need a toilet after all. Thank you for looking.
When Allegra finally squats to pee, there is a slight difference in height, noticeable to someone her age, an extra drop of this much that makes it feel like her knees are at her shoulders. She squats like a peasant and laughs.
When her business is finished and she stands again, Allegra wonders at the thrill of fear she feels on flushing, wonders if the toilet and its small flush will cope with her bowel movement that comes habitually in the morning. No matter, this first flush is a success, a mere whisper of pipe secretly meeting the city sewer line. At last she is free to wash her hands and go about her business.
That night Allegra gives thanks to Saint Paulinus in her prayers, and God as well. Then she dreams about the new toilet.
It is plugged.
In her dream she keeps flushing, watching the water rise, teaming with goldfish turning in a kaleidoscope of patterns. Soon she has the water running clean with only a fish or two in it. And finally, with the use of her strong arms and a plunger, the toilet takes its first gulp of air, and a porpoise (perfectly sized for the ceramic bowl) pops out. Sadly, the water is too shallow in the efficient toilet for it to survive. Allegra reaches in to point its nose back to the sea and flushes again.