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Online Exclusive Fiction: Broken Water Main

Illustration by Alejandra Paton //

PLODDING through time at eye-level, life is a seemingly endless string of disconnected, unfinished business, our attention pulled first one way then another, the back of our thoughts cluttered with half-told, never finished stories. The metaphorical baby gets trapped in a well and the outcome, whatever it is, gets lost in the shuffle of everyday life, and I wonder, do we realize how often this happens? Being introduced to a part of the picture, sometimes without even realizing it at first, then never knowing how the rest unfolds?

Is this a product of our age? So many channels, so little time, the pace of things effectively interfering with the urge to satisfy what should be our natural curiosity. Is that how things slip by?

Or maybe it’s always been this way, a hillside of clover walked past and never witnessed coming into bloom, because since when has anyone had the time to sit and watch?

And maybe the natural order of things is that we are always pretty much stuck somewhere in the middle of whatever’s happening, and where things started and where they will end, these are mysteries no one can know. Could it be this is why we have history and fiction and television and, heaven forbid, sports even, so that once in a while we do get to see at least some one thing or another come to some kind of a satisfactory conclusion?

So I’ll say only this about what follows. I don’t know how it turns out.


Of course there is no proper place to begin either. Somewhere at the root of everything is a broken water main which managed to produce a sizable flood in my basement, ruining our furnace. This could stand as a beginning of sorts, though it doesn’t say much, not all on its own like that.

It happened towards the end of April and two weeks later, in early May, we finally found someone to remove the old furnace and stick in a new one. The company that did the work came recommended by our neighbour who’d had their furnace replaced only the year before. The man who ended up doing the majority of the work putting ours in, his name was Devon, and when he was mostly done, and the other men who’d helped him with the removal of the old hulking thing were gone, Devon realized he was missing something he needed. He called his company and they said they’d dispatch someone right away, that the thing, whatever it was, would be round in probably a matter of minutes. Till then Devon’s hands were tied. No point doing anything, he said. I asked if he was really almost done and he nodded, Yeah, he said. Almost there. I asked if he wanted a beer or anything and he seemed about to decline when he turned to me and said, All right, why not.

I got him one and he settled himself on the steps in the front hall, just next to the door. There’s a picture on the wall right there of my kids, one of those studio jobs. Yours? he said. I answered, Yes, and said that I’d have to go get them in a couple of minutes, from the school. How about you, I asked, Any kids? Yeah, he said. A girl. Cute as a button. Probably about the same age as yours. He gestured at the picture with the hand holding the beer. We’ve got her in highland dance. Oh, really, I said, where do you take her? Over on Durham, he replied. You know the church across the bridge? I said I did and asked him if it had been hard to get her in and I told him how my wife had called around but the couple of places she spoke to were reluctant to take on anyone new right now.

Easy, he said. I think she takes in anyone. The woman’s kind of a nut, one who runs it, wears one of those hats all the time, a tam o’ shanter kind of thing. Always out gabbing with the parents when she’s supposed to be in there teaching them how to dance, but she’s all right and Katie seems to like it so that’s fine. That’s what counts.

I told him it sounded good. The last thing I want these days is to get my kids signed up for something where they’re expected to take it too seriously.

Are there a lot of kids in the class then? I asked. A few, he said. There’s always more than enough parents waiting around. I think maybe some of them have their kids there just so they can hang around and shoot the breeze while the class is on. Here Devon smiled, God, he said, There’s even this one woman who goes there that I was beginning to wonder about. Realized the other day I couldn’t match her up with any of the kids. I’d seen her there lots of times, waiting, always off in the corner with a magazine. But I couldn’t remember ever seeing her with her kid, you know? So, last week, there I was waiting for my daughter and I still didn’t figure it out. Got out to the parking lot and realized she was in the spot right next to us, already out there in her car, and there’s me wondering if I can figure out who’s mother she is. And I’m trying to look but trying not to look like I’m looking either, don’t want to freak her out, right? But she’s got these tinted windows. Couldn’t see a thing. So I figure that’s that, I’ll get it next week. But then, on the way home, she was right ahead of me, and I mean, the whole way, right to my own driveway.

Of course it was at this moment in Devon’s story that his cell phone began to ring and he reached around to his belt to answer it. And it was also then I looked at my watch and saw I was going to be late. So, as Devon was answered his phone, saying Hello, I was pointing at my watch, mouthing the words, I have to go, and Devon was nodding, saying, Yeah, Uh-huh, into his phone, and nodding at me and I knew he understood I was on my way out and so I left. And I guess he must have left right after me, almost right away, but as I drove off to get my kids I wasn’t aware of it. Didn’t see anything unusual.


The drive to the school was notable for only one thing. As I drove down Park St. I saw a woman standing beside her car in the road. She was rushing around trying all the doors, a Baby On Board sign stuck in the window. Someone else, another woman, an older woman, was standing on the sidewalk frantically turning the pages of the phonebook. This will not come up again later. I noticed it, that is all. I drove home a different way.


In the playground at the school it was the usual contained turmoil, the release of all that pent up energy of the kids having been in school all day pouring in and around the parents quietly standing there talking about nothing much especially. Some chicks were just hatching in the Senior Kindergarten class and everyone was talking about that, were wanting to go in and have their kids see how things were coming along. Some had hatched over-night apparently, or were about to, maybe that night. One or the other. I didn’t have time. I didn’t want to the leave the furnace guy at our home. If he needed something or had a question for me I wanted to be there. Still, once I’d connected with the kids, I’d been a few minutes late and they’d already got caught up in some game that involved chasing this other bigger kid who was holding onto a basketball, and now they wanted to stay, so I said we could stay a few minutes, but only a few, which turned out to be just long enough for me to notice this one father had somehow acquired braces overnight. Cosmetic? Prescriptive? Cruelty?

Another person I saw was this woman who had managed to slowly swing herself just far enough back across the diet scale as to leave me scratching my head. Once, perhaps, she’d been a little on the heavy side, but I kind of liked that. It looked good on her. She looked healthy. Now she was decidedly thin. Maybe too thin. It looked somehow impossible. And she was going on about how she had managed to buy thirty things for three dollars and I didn’t catch where, some liquidation sale it sounded like, fodder for loot bags, or something like that, and probably already half-way down the road to some landfill. Nice ring though, Thirty things for three dollars, catchy. But why?

A hand was on my shoulder. It was Shaun, the father of one of the boys in my daughter’s class, someone I knew fairly well, and he was explaining something to me, something about a piano, then asking would I help him move it the next day, and I expect I probably looked like I was paying attention, and I was, but not completely, because what I was looking at, it being a warm day, and Shaun wearing perhaps his first t-shirt of the season, was the tattoo peeking out from under his shirt sleeve, what looked like some kind of sunburst, or something like that, and all I remember thinking was, he’s not the sort, though obviously he is and what a poor judge I am, which is the truth. Funny, that it’s the sort of world where someone like Shaun could ask someone like me to help him move a piano, but it is not the sort of world where someone like me can ask someone like Shaun if I could look at the rest of his tattoo.

So what I said instead was that I wasn’t sure if I was free, about the piano, but would call and that seemed fine and a few minutes later me and the kids were on our way to the car, not one of them in what I would describe as a good mood, and while opening the door to the car and piling the kids in, someone on his cell, leaning against the car next to us was saying, Pills, oh yeah, pills. God, I saw him knock about ten out onto the bench, then I guess he took them and went off and did another batch of repetitions, I don’t know how many. Yeah, reps, repetitions…


We took a different route home, different from the one I took to get the kids. We detoured past the hole in the road where supposedly they were working on the bits in and around the water main that broke, the one that caused the flood in our basement. Nothing was going on. Nobody there. Just a hole in the road with a couple of flimsy barriers angled around it and wrapped around those some orange plastic fencing.

Turning onto our street I had to slow to a crawl halfway down the block. A woman was walking down the middle of the street, either oblivious or indifferent to my being right behind her, perhaps sticking it to the world one carload of kids returning from school at a time. She was carrying a shopping bag in one hand, held an umbrella in the other, which she had open and was using as a parasol. When we came to a gap in the cars parked along the side of the road I was able to swing carefully past her. I have the feeling she glanced in my direction as we did, but I never looked myself, perhaps afraid of what might happen if I did.


A minute later we were home. Devon, the furnace man, of course was gone, as you already know. And it was another half hour or so before my wife was home. By then someone else had turned up to finish the work in our basement, before I’d even gotten around to making a call, and this other guy, he seemed none too happy to be there, the kind of man who grunts most of what he has to say, which isn’t much, and leaves it at that. He was done in an hour, clean up and everything, then gone, so apparently there really was only a very little left to do when Devon stopped.

At dinner I asked my wife if she minded my going off the next evening to help move a piano. Her fork stopped half-way to her mouth. She stared at me a moment, one of those looks intended to determine if the speaker is serious. Then she said, Why? Do you want to? I hadn’t thought of it in those terms. But before I could answer or explain, she said to me, Oh, you’ll never guess what happened today. And, it being the kind of day it was, the kind of day all days are, really, that was the moment someone rang the front door-bell. It was the inspector, there to certify the new furnace, which, as it turned out, worked fine, so he said. That evening, as we put the furnace through its paces, as instructed, the house filled with a kind of synthetic smell, a smell of burnt plastic or burning oil, which we were told would happen, so that when we shut it off the next day, shut the furnace off, it was a relief. But still, all summer we’ve wondered if it’s gas we’re smelling whenever we go down into the basement. It’ll be fall before we know for certain whether the thing really works. And then of course, it’ll hopefully be years before the gas runs out. Winters round here get awfully cold. So no hurry there. We can wait for that.  ∞ 


Joe Davies’ short fiction has appeared in subTerrain, filling Station, Rampike, The Moth, eFiction India, The Manchester Review, The Missouri Review, PRISM International, Planet: The Welsh Internationalist, Queen’s Quarterly, The New Quarterly, Crannog and several other magazines and journals. He lives in Peterborough, Ontario.

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