It was the one thing she desired most. Nick knew this much based on everything she’d told him the day before – how she wanted everything to go back to the way it was a few years ago, back before her adult son had irrepressibly plummeted into the chasm of drugs and binging and making (or trying to make) the drugs himself – in her basement for God’s sake. She’d told Nick that much – told him she couldn’t understand how her boy ever ended up that way, after all the love she’d given him over the years; she just wanted her little boy back, only he wasn’t a little boy anymore; Nick had seen him, holed up in the back storage room of that basement, stowed away in the back corner on a makeshift cot because nearly every other corner of the place was monopolized by garbage and unlaundered clothing and broken stereo parts and of course those damn used bloody needles that gave Nick the creeps.
Now here she was again, telling him how much she desired for things to be better, and he couldn’t figure out why it was him she’d chosen to tell all these things to, since he’d only just met her two days prior when he was called out to fix a leaky pipe in her basement. He thought he was done with her, with that place; he thought he could drive home, be with his own clean family in his own clean house, but she had to shatter his fragile peace by calling him and giving him some ludicrous story about how she’d found hope because today her son was forced into mandatory rehab, and now was her chance to make things better.
“That’s great Mrs. Ritter. I hope things go well for him there.” he told her, mentally rolling his eyes.
“Oh, it’s going to be good for him there; that is for sure. I just don’t know what to do when he gets out.” she said.
“Maybe you should…” Nick stopped himself. He was preparing to suggest that she have her deadbeat, meth shooting son stay elsewhere, preferably far away from her, but he stopped because he knew she would never listen to that sort of advice. Besides, why was it his place? Why should he care?
“I know. I know what has to be done.” she said, and for a moment Nick wondered if she was starting to gain some sense. “I need to get that basement all cleaned up, so he will have a decent place to come home to, and he won’t be reminded of that old life.”
This time Nick rolled his eyes for real, at the same time dreading what he was certain he would hear next – the main reason for her call.
“Nick, how much would it cost for you to come back and help straighten out these other rooms?” she asked, sounding so timid, the way many older ladies tend to sound, and it managed to grab him by the gut every time. Now he was regretting ever getting as involved as he did. He should have just fixed the stupid pipe and left that hell hole the way he’d found it, with a laundry room full of pooh water and nasty, sopping clothes covering the floor with used needles in the creases and the pockets, but she’d gotten hold of him that first day with her sweet, timid old lady voice and her watery eyes; it gave him the sensation of a hand grabbing his insides and pulling him to a place he didn’t want to go, but some deep seeded part of him knew he should.
So when she’d offered to pay him extra for some help cleaning up the laundry room, he accepted and spent hours bagging up old, filthy clothes while dodging the potential jabs of used needles and trying not to rub up against the blood spatters on the walls. He’d frequently fought off the overwhelming inclination to vomit, as there was something unbearable about the thought of what he was cleaning up. As a plumber, he’d crawled through all sorts of filth and had often swam in sewage, so he didn’t have a weak stomach by any means, but this…There was something horribly wrong about this, and the laundry room was the cleanest part of the basement. Now she wanted to clean up the bedrooms? Was she crazy??
“I don’t know Mrs. Ritter. I mean, that would take days, and I’d end up missing time from my job. I think it would be too expensive for you.” Nick was banking on the fact that she had next to no money. It was a strain just for her to pay a nominal plumbing fee and he’d seen a pile of overdue bills setting on her kitchen table.
“Oh don’t you worry, Nick; I’ve got it all figured out. I’ve already talked to an accountant, and I am going to take money out of my retirement. I am going to get this place all fixed up.” she said.
Good Lord, he thought. She is delusional!
“Mrs. Ritter, please don’t dip into your retirement!” he said. And he wanted to say so much more. He wanted to tell her to give up on that stupid kid and think about taking care of herself a little better. He wanted to tell her that those state run treatment places have something like a one percent success rate, and her son’s chances weren’t even one percent because he was forced to go. He wanted to tell her that any rational person would look at what her son had done to her house and say that there is no hope of saving someone who’s been living like that. He wanted to, but he didn’t. And she was starting to cry.
“What else am I supposed to do?” she said through sobs. “I have to try! Don’t I? Don’t I need to try for my boy?”
Nick grew teary as well, which he didn’t understand, because he was nearly as pissed off as he was moved.
“Do you have kids, Nick?” she asked.
“Yes I do.” he said and paused for several seconds. “Two. Two boys.”
“What…what would you do?” she asked.
Nick gazed at the mile markers and the freeway pavement turning darker as a fresh downpour of rain kicked in, continuing to drive south toward home, and he realized this was one of those times, one of those situations you find yourself in where you are not completely in control.
“I would do what I could.” he responded, not knowing what else to say.
“That is what I’m trying to do!” she said before her emotions choked her up completely, and Nick heard her break into a fit of crying.
Why did I have to get the call to fix that damn pipe? he thought. Why me?? His mind scrambled to think of a solution – one that would help this poor lady while simultaneously alleviated him from any future involvement, and he was at a loss, because he knew she had nothing; she had nobody; she was so alone that she was resorting to pouring her heart out to a plumber – a stranger! – over the phone.
Maybe I could pull together some guys at church…he thought, but he hated that idea, because it would inevitably mean him going back to that horrible place he’d never wanted to see again. He could still hear her weeping. He didn’t know what to do, so he remained silent. He put the phone on speaker, placed it in his lap because his ear was getting sweaty. Still at a loss, he just drove, silently.
“Nick, are you there?” he heard over the phone’s speaker. “Can you hear me?” He could still hear the shakiness, the tears in her voice. “Is anybody there? Hello? Can you hear me?”
“Can you help?”
His van kept driving south. And the rain fell harder.