Fear of Sinking
“Bedtime,” a story by Gabriel Heller
The drains were backing up. The sink in the bathroom, which I feared my daughter had stuffed with paper, drained with the slowness of an hourglass. The sink in the kitchen was only a little better. Just last week the super had removed a clump of hair the size of a baby’s head from the shower drain, and it still wasn’t draining properly. We have to get a fucking plumber over here, I said to my wife. Can we talk about this later? she said. Let’s deal with bedtime first. Then we’ll talk about the plumber later. I ran the water in the bath till all the yellow had gone out of it, and then I put the stopper in and let the water fill the tub. I sat on the edge of it, thinking about our predicament. It wasn’t so easy to find a decent plumber, the last plumber who’d come to the apartment was basically a thief, given how much he charged for half an hour of work. What are you doing? my wife called. I’m filling the bath, I said. I could really use your help, she said. I’ll be there in a minute, I said, but really there was no reason I had to be in the bathroom watching the water fill the bathtub, so I came out and found my son in the living room chewing up the edge of the rug and my wife in the kitchen spooning apple sauce into my daughter’s mouth. I picked up my son, reaching into his mouth and pulling out a few fibers from the rug I’d bought from a friend, who for a while was adrift and selling rugs but was now a newspaper reporter in Tehran. I went into the kitchen, and my daughter said, I’m a baby. My mama’s feeding me. You’re three and a half almost, I said. I’m a baby, like Max, she said. Alright, I said. It’s almost bath time, baby. She’s just having a little more applesauce, my wife said, and then she’s going to take a bath. I’m a baby, she said. Alright, baby. Finish your applesauce and then let’s take a bath. I brought my son into the bathroom and shut off the bath water, and then into the foyer, where we have our changing table, which is not really a changing table, just my old falling-apart Ikea dresser with a changing pad on top of it. We’re going splish-splash, Max, I said, as I took off his clothes, and that got him excited and he started flapping his arms wildly, and when he was naked I carried him into the bath, and a few minutes later, my daughter walked in naked, and stepped in, and while my son kicked his feet, and my daughter played with a plastic bag, filling it and squeezing the water out the small holes she’d made in it, I sat on the floor next to them, thinking about something my mother had told me a few weeks earlier, how when I was just about my daughter’s age I had developed a fear of taking baths, it came out of nowhere, according to my mother, just one day it seized me, and I refused to get in the tub. When she told me this, it was as if I could suddenly remember it, the very texture of the fear, it wasn’t a fear of the bathtub, but a fear of the drain, that little round entrance into another world, a world of darkness beneath the floor, behind the walls. What if it sucked me down? But you have to get clean, Gabriel, my mother would say, and she tried to pick me up, but I clung to the edge of the tub, screaming. Daddy, the water’s getting cold, my daughter said, and I said, Alright, time to get out, and I picked up my son and swung him from side to side letting the water drip off him back into the tub, onto my daughter’s head. It’s raining, I said. Then I wrapped him in a towel, and I helped my daughter out, and we went into the living room, where my wife was picking toys off the floor. Was this really my wife, this tired-looking woman picking toys off the floor? She said, Did you have a good bath? And my daughter said, Daddy wasn’t playing with me, and my wife said, Why wasn’t daddy playing with you? and my daughter said, I don’t know, and for a moment I felt like bursting into tears, while I was putting on my son’s pajamas in the foyer. Did you make a bottle? I called to my wife, who answered that, yes, the bottle was already made, it was in the refrigerator. Great, I said, as I carried my son into the kitchen and got the bottle and then through the hall into our room where he still had his crib next to our bed. I turned the sound machine on and sat in the glider chair by the window and gave him the bottle, letting my eyes close, my head fall back against the top of the chair, while my son sucked his bottle down, and then I stood up with him and burped him and sang him hush little baby and put him down in his crib with his stuffed giraffe and left the room just as he started to cry. My wife was brushing my daughter’s teeth, and I went past the bathroom, his cries following me down the hall, into the kitchen, where I started doing dishes, letting the water run lightly, because of the problem with the drain, hearing my son crying over the sound of the water, but the sound of his crying didn’t hurt me viscerally in the way my daughter’s crying used to when we’d leave her to cry herself to sleep. His crying wasn’t pleasant, but I could bear it, it didn’t destroy me like my daughter’s crying had once destroyed me. Say goodnight to daddy, my wife said, and I turned, and they were standing in the doorway, my daughter’s face buried in my wife’s neck. I turned off the water, dried my hands. Goodnight, I said and touched the curls on top of my daughter’s head. No kiss, she said, burying her face into my wife’s shoulder. That’s OK, I said, trying to take it in stride, trying to take it all in stride, it was just a phase, I told myself, she’s three years old, she’s supposed to be a little difficult, and besides we have plenty of good moments, I thought, as I kissed the back of her head and told her I loved her. Then I finished washing the dishes and went in the living room and picked up my aunt’s manuscript. My aunt was writing a book about my grandparents’ life in Prague before the war, trying to put the pieces back together. It was almost unbearable to read, to see coming what the characters in the story could never see coming. My wife came out of the bedroom. I put the manuscript down. Is she asleep? I asked. She was exhausted, my wife said. Do you want to hang out for a little bit? I asked. Sure. Just let me go get a cookie, she said. But right then the buzzer on the front door sounded. Who the fuck is that? I asked. Jesus Christ, if the kids wake up, I will murder someone, my wife said. She went to the door. Who is it? she said in a completely different voice. It’s Jewel from down the hall. I’m sorry to ring your bell so late. I heard my wife unlock and open the door. Are you okay, Jewel? I don’t know if I’m okay or not. The landlord turned my electricity off. I have no phone. He’s trying to get me out of here. Do you think you can give a call down to Happy Lucky Kitchen and order me some food, I have the money to pay for it, and maybe I could have just a glass of water. Of course, Jewel, my wife said. Come in please. Sit down. Oh, that’s okay, sweetheart. Just some water would be nice. I got up from the couch and went in the kitchen and poured a glass of water from the filter, brought it over to the door. She was wearing a dirty bathrobe. Her bleached-looking, useless eyes were wide open. I handed her the water, touched the glass to her hand. Thank you so much, dear, she said. She told my wife the phone number and what she wanted, and my wife called to order the food. I told her I could walk her back to her apartment. Thank you so much, sweetheart. I took her arm and we began to walk down the hall. Her apartment was on the very opposite end of the floor. Her fingers clamped hard onto my arm. Can you see anything at all? I asked. Oh, don’t talk about it, she said. I’m going to call a social worker tomorrow, I said. No, please don’t. Those people have a vendetta against me. They want to take my social security and shut me up in a home, but I’ve lived here forty-one years, and I won’t go. Finally, we were standing in front of her door. She fumbled in the pockets of her robe and pulled out the keys, used the finger of her other hand to find the lock. When she opened the door, I smelled rottenness, decay. Something shivered deep inside me. Her apartment was dark, but from the light in the hall I could make out framed photographs on the wall opposite the door. One was of Nelson Mandela, smiling and waving. Come check on me from time to time, she said. I will, I said, and then I walked back to my apartment, where my wife was in the kitchen, stabbing a straightened clothes hanger down the drain.
Gabriel Heller’s writing has appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading, Fence, The Gettysburg Review, The Sun, Witness, and other publications. He teaches at New York University.