The rusty sludge gurgles in the bathroom sink, again. It’s the pipes I just know. I had hoped that the superintendent would have replaced the pipes in our bathroom, but then again we do live in the woods of Appalachia. Brushing my teeth is getting harder. There’s nowhere to spit out the baking soda paste that foams up my mouth every morning and night. I tried to think about the herbs I’d grown in the window box not getting watered, and how maybe all the pipes might soon be just as rusty as the ones in the bathroom. What good would basil be if it tasted like an old nail?
Ma took one of the hangers from our closet, untwisting it with her tired hands. She told me, “Arie, we cannot rely on others to fix the problems that exist within these walls. These walls were built to give us more problems, not the kind we can ask anyone else to fix.”
Ma lengthened the wired hanger, pulling downward straightening the coil of metal.
She had working hands, hands that never ceased to stay busy. The wire sliced Ma’s hand and she didn’t even wince, she simply wiped the blood onto her pants and continued to work the wire. Pain had been indoctrinated into our community, and we’d been forced to co-exist with it for years. A community of miners, mill workers, and drug dealers. We were used to going without, everyone here was. Ma handed me the makeshift plumbing snake to use in our strained bathroom sink.
“Arie take this to the bathroom, and give it a good push down the drain a few times.”
It was just the two of us, and it had been for some time. My brother Jay died four years ago.
It felt like yesterday that Big John from doors down banged on our back window startling my mother and I awake from our shared room. You’d think he was our immediate neighbor as in I could throw a rock and hit his yard, but it was more of a ten minute walk through the hills of Appalachia. There was a difference between windows rattling from gunshots reverberating nearby and the sound of neighbors trying to communicate something urgently.
My Ma waited for the sound to die down, “Big John, that you?”
“Ramona, it ain’t good. Jay…. They got Jay.”
I waited for my mother to gasp out in devastation at the loss of her only boy. The air didn’t leave her body, the tears didn’t come, she managed to close her eyes with a heavy pause dropping her head back to the pillow. It was ordinary around these parts for someone to die every week, and for a mother to hardly weep at the loss.
“Alright Big John. Alright.”
Gunfire was normal. The boom boom boom of bullets were common in our Appalachian town. Of course they often echoed through the mountains from hunters firing shotguns at wild game. We never flinched, unless we felt the air of a bullet gust by us. Those bullets were different, often fired from some dealer's gun with a rat ta tat tat sound. Television lied about what it was like to live where we live. Yes it was beautiful, but we were shut off from the outer world. We knew what wi-fi was, but most of us still used aluminum rabbit ears to get one or two fuzzy stations on the tv. We were basically a glorified forest, with hordes of lost boys, with a fifth grade education and a proclivity for cooking meth.
Jay was older than me by a few years, and he often found odd jobs helping folks a town or two over with yard work and such. Like my mother, Jay stayed busy with work to help out. He’d ride his matte black bicycle that was two sizes too small for him for hours on the weekends, often only making as little as ten dollars. He’d ride the calories off his body before his teenage metabolism even had a chance to put them to work. That ten dollars was the difference between having bread, and having bread with cheese on it. I hadn’t seen my brother in four years, and it had been as long since my Ma or I had eaten a cheese sandwich.
In all the years we’d lived in this house I can say with certainty that the superintendent Hughes Jackson hadn’t replaced a single screw or lock or broken window in it. He called the bullet holes scattered throughout the windows, ‘air conditioning.’ Hughes was a haggard older man in his fifties, pot bellied, and stagnant in disposition. He’d inherited the position of super after his father died of emphysema almost a decade ago. If we wanted anything fixed we had to be willing to give him something in exchange. My Ma forbade me from bargaining with the man that smelled of cigarettes and stale sweat.
“Arie, when you bargain with the devil hell is what you’ll get. We won’t ask that man for nothin’.” Ma’s twang never stopped her from sounding like the smartest person I’d ever heard speak in my life. We were ordinary people sure, but we liked books just as much as others did.
She had a way with words that made me listen. I knew there had to be a way to get the plumbing fixed in our place. I didn't know what would be scarier, bargaining with the devil Hughes for better pipes or dealing with the sentencing my Ma would dole out to me if she found out. Rumor had it that Shirley Stackmore, quarter mile down the road had traded favors of the womanly sort with Hughes to get a new lock on her front door. Hughes' heart held no compassion for those of us that existed as we did. Even though we had lived in the same broken part of the world, and were equal in what we didn't have.
“Ma, the sink still ain’t workin’.” Ma just nodded, grabbed her coat and headed out the door starting her 2 mile walk to the mill for her twelve hour shift. Once she was gone, I figured I might as well water my herbs. Praying to a god I knew did not exist, I wished the water to run clear.
Rusty sludge. Again.
Hitting the faucet and kicking the cupboard didn’t make me feel better, but my anger had to go somewhere. My name meant “Lion of God,” and I was known for the occasional roar when I’d been pushed too far. Ma had named me Arie because she said I came into this world roaring like a lion, just spitting mad at the eviction I’d been given from the comfort of her womb.
That’s it, I’m going to see Hughes.
I gave myself a good five minutes before I shimmied my way through the back wooded area to get to Hughes place. It was a good fifteen minutes on foot if you used the gravelled road, but I was trying to stay unseen so I had about thirty minutes through the brush and leaves. It didn’t matter, the longer walk gave me time to think of the case I was going to present.
In all my fifteen years of life it was in this moment that I knew what my Ma meant when she said, “Sometimes your power comes right from your very mouth. It’s not really what you say, but how you say it when you challenge someone who has more influence than you.” She was always saying things that sounded so philosophical.
Got it. Hughes has more power than us, and he’s just making our lives harder.
Now, listen here Hughes. You can’t just go leaving us without clean water. You ole bastard!
I thought maybe I’d throw in a minor swear word to get his attention. Before I could formulate any of my speech to persuade Hughes, I saw him right in his backyard plain as day in his coveralls without a shirt trimming a sparse bush with clippers. No way was I going to let him get back inside to hide from me. Quickly I bolted close to him, catching him off guard. The ruckus of the leaves wasn’t enough to turn his head my way. It was the quiet roar from behind my teeth that had Hughes stepping back completely unawares.
The abruptness in my tone caused him to rise up from his bent over stance.
“Hey Hughes, now listen……..”
The smell hit me before I could finish my tirade of calling him a bastard. Smells of pine and lemon with hints of woodiness hit my nose.
“You have rosemary? Where the hell did you get rosemary?” It was more a demand than a question.
Hughes drawl was slow and heavy, “Not that it’s any of yer business little girl. But my daddy planted this for my momma years back.”
The sadness and nostalgia filled his face and his eyes. Oh no, I will not let this moment of humanness from Hughes change what I came here for.
“What are you doing here back yonder behind my house girl? Yer momma know where you’re at?” These weren’t questions, more like warnings especially where we lived and I knew I needed to be careful with what I said next.
“Listen Hughes, the water in our pipes is sludge and rusted as red as the mud down by the creek. We need new pipes.” My words came out in one giant blurb, I had to show that I wasn’t here to negotiate my terms but to get the problem fixed. No way were my herbs gonna die when Hughes had a whole damn rosemary bush right here in his backyard.
“What’cha got to trade me for, huh?”
My blood boiled as dark as the scum that was oozing from my sinks at the level of his audacity. My Ma was right, this man was the devil but he had made the mistake of showing me a small peak of vulnerability. He cared about this rosemary bush, and he said as much by trying to sway my attention from it. We shared the same land, this man and I. We weren’t that different, yet he spoke to me as I owed him something.
“I ain’t here to trade ya nothing, you filthy old degenerate. What would yer daddy say huh? I know Norman Jackson wouldn’t have stood for what you call managing his properties. Maybe it was the tobacco that took him, but if it weren’t that it’d be his disappointment in you that would put him dead in the ground!”
“Sides, you ain’t no better than any of the folks that live in your houses.”
Ma said not to bargain with a beast like Hughes, but I wasn’t here to bargain. I was here to speak power to his disgusting mis-management of my house. No, I wasn’t here to ask or to trade. I was here to get my pipes fixed so that I could keep my herbs just like Hughes got to keep his. Hughes scanned my figure, ironically we were both in coveralls mine a bit more flattering than his. He eyed the bites and scabs covering my forearms.
“That air conditioning you speak of in our broken windows doesn’t work so well to keep the ‘squitos out.”
I don’t know why I felt the need to explain myself to him, but he needed to know I wasn’t scabbed up because of the mountain meth that many others round here used. Pity wasn’t something I was seeking either, because I wasn’t dirty like his face scrunched up in the corners were implying I was.
“I’m giving you twenty four hours to come check out our plumbing. If you don’t, I’ll be right back here day after day after day until you do.”
For added measure as I walked away I said, “I’d keep an eye on that rosemary if I were you.”
The clock ticked and ticked. I prayed that Hughes would come fix these blasted pipes. I prayed even harder he didn’t do it while my Ma was here. There was no way I could explain to her how Hughes knew we had bad pipes or why he was fixing them. Twenty some hours had passed and my Ma left again for work. In four hours I’d be marching my way back down to Hughes house with scissors in hand. If I don’t get my herbs, then neither does he.
The sound of a slight rap came at the front door. Opening the door felt impossible to me, but that didn’t stop Hughes from walking right in anyway. He didn’t say hello, he brushed past my arm with his old wooden toolbox. After a few swear words and dog-gone-its Hughes emerged from our bathroom, arms covered in russet wetness. The smell nearly knocked my tongue to the back of my throat, leaving me speechless.
“I’ll be back.” Hughes spat.
He must have been gone about two hours, when I heard his truck pull back onto our street. Forgoing the knocking he made his way back to the bathroom, shutting the door behind him. Noises of twisting tools and gagging sounds came from down the hall. I sat and waited.
Hughes tired and musty walked out of the bathroom to my front door, turned to me, “Don’t you ever threaten my rosemary again. You hear me girl?” He pointed at me sharply from the end of the drive. Ma was right, I had threatened his rosemary and he knew I meant what I said.
The water ran clear, for the first time in weeks. It even smelled fresh like the springs in the summertime. My herbs thanked me with their upright stature and bright green leaves. As mad as I was for Hughes' long term neglect of our home I gathered myself and thought about what my Ma said about fixing our own problems. I broke off part of my basil plant and placed it gently into a plastic bottle cut in half. With my marker and a piece of paper I wrote the words, “Some common earth to put by your rosemary.”
Hughes and I were the same, perfectly ordinary people who'd do anything to get what they needed. No need to give hell when I could give the man some basil instead.