Portland Towers

“I was getting headaches until I got the second one,” Dinty said, an earphone in each ear with wires leading to the cell phone in his shirtfront pocket. “Now all my calls come in stereo. Like a voice inside my head, right here.” He tapped his forehead with his index finger. “If it’s my boss, it sounds like the voice of God.” Mimicking his boss’s deep baritone, he said, “Dinty, public toilet five on the ninth floor has crap smears in it. Get up there with your brush.” He scratched the bald spot on the head of the Chihuahua in his lap. “Mr. Orly is like any boss, he’s obsessed with smears.”

Taking the earphones from his ears, he offered them to the dog. “Here, do you want to listen? I’ll call you and I can be the voice of God. ‘Stanley, stop shedding on the man’s uniform.’” Then the phone rang. The caller ID said it was Mr. Orly. “Oops, speak of the devil. I better take this.”

Dinty was one of twelve full-time janitors in the Portland Towers, three cylindrical columns rubbing the gray belly of the overcast sky above. The buildings were state of the art when they were constructed in the 1960s, but now they were concrete monstrosities with leaky plumbing and slow elevators. Dinty loved them. He was a big collector of ’60s retro kitsch and being able to live inside a giant monument to that era of snappy colors and chic trinkets was like living in a dream. He didn’t mind that the only way he could afford to live there was as the janitor. He felt like a caretaker in a museum, looking after precious artifacts.

He lived in a small basement apartment crowded with his vintage treasures. His most prized was his spoon collection. He had a small spoon from each of the fifty states in the nation, which hung in a cherrywood rack that had an individual slot for each spoon. Dinty’s grandmother had willed it to him, knowing he would take good care of it because he agreed with her that the commemorative state spoons you found in today’s interstate truck stop gift shops just didn’t compare in quality to those from the 60’s that made up her collection. It even included a rare spoon from Puerto Rico. She and Dinty used to argue over whether it belonged in the set or not, since Puerto Rico wasn’t an actual state but a protectorate. Dinty kept that spoon in the sugar bowl with the sugar cubes. But he still polished it with the others every weekend.

“Hello, Mr. Orly,” he said as he answered the phone. Mr. Orly always called him a minute after his lunch hour was over. “I’m on my way.”

Mr. Orly was original hardware. He had come with the buildings. He liked Dinty and was grooming him to be his replacement when he finally retired next year. It took a special person to manage three buildings full of so many lives, and sometimes he worried Dinty might not be man enough for it, so he rode him a lot. “Dinty, lunch is over. A resident has a plumbing issue.”

“Residence number?” Dinty asked, but he could guess who it was.

“Twenty-three-oh-nine. They requested you.”

Twenty-third floor, farthest from the elevator and on the right. Miss Betty Bobcake, the widow who went back to using her maiden name after her husband died. Dinty had been called up there a lot recently. First it was her disposal that had a problem, then it was her washing machine, and then her refrigerator, but that turned out simply to have been unplugged.

“I’ll take care of it, sir,” he said and hung up. He turned off Days of our Lives, set Stanley, a stuffed Chihuahua a former resident had left behind, onto the floor and grabbed his tool bag. At the apartment door he turned off the light and headed upstairs.

Betty Bobcake met him at the door. She was a heavy woman in her forties who resembled a German hausfrau. “Oh, Dinty, you’re a lifesaver,” she said, sucking on something that smelled like hard candy, apple flavor. Just like the other times, she grabbed his gray uniform sleeve and whisked him inside. “It’s this way.” She led him through the living room, down a short hall to the bedroom and into the bathroom. “I’m so embarrassed,” she said as she released him with a slight push toward the toilet.

It was plugged. “Don’t be. It happens to the best of us, Miss Bobcake,” he said as he reached for the toilet plunger in his tool bag, though he couldn’t remember ever plugging a toilet himself other than the times in grade school when he and his friends did it on purpose.

“Oh, Dinty, I think you can call me Betty by now. Even my husband never had to do this for me.”

He doubted that and wondered what had caused her husband’s demise as he lowered the plunger into the toilet and plunged. He also took a plunge with Miss Bobcake. “Betty, when did your husband die?”

“Years ago, back when I was thin. Here, I’ll show you a photo of us.” She left and returned with a silver-framed wedding picture. She held it out for him to look at as he paused his work with the plunger. An old man stood in the center, next to him was his young bride, blonde and willowy. Both were smiling at one another, like grandfather and granddaughter. There were others in the photo, but they were shadows compared to the bride and groom.

“You look very happy,” he said and plunged again. “How did he die?”

She held the photo to her bosom, gazing at it quietly. “Oh,” she sighed, “I guess I can tell you. He died right here, on this very toilet. Just like Elvis, with his pants around his skinny ankles and a turd bobbing in the bowl.”

Dinty stopped plunging and stared at the toilet. It was a typical ’60s light blue number. He had no trouble picturing the Rat Pack taking turns filling its bowl and flushing.

“I kept it, you know.”

“It?”

“Yes. At first I thought the police had made a mistake when they left it behind. I thought it might be evidence, you know, in case they wanted to check it for poisons, so I kept it in a Tupperware bin in the freezer. But the coroner ruled it a natural death, heart failure on the toilet. They said it was fairly common for older men, something to do with bowel strain.”

Dinty knew he was supposed to say something, but instead he pushed down the toilet’s handle. The bowl began to fill, but the swirling of the blue water didn’t commence, instead it rose slowly toward the rim, and Dinty rushed in with the plunger again but to no avail. It overflowed, a pool of blue on the white tile floor.

“Oh crap!” Dinty cursed. “I’m sorry, Miss Bobcake. This is some clog. I’m gonna have to use the snake.”

Betty was still in her own thoughts. “They said I married him for his money because he was so much older than me, but that was never true. He wasn’t nearly as famous as Elvis, but he was famous amongst those he worked with, so I kept it even after the police said they didn’t need it. I stacked chickens on it, frozen steaks, vegetables, whatever went into the freezer. Eventually it was swallowed up by the frost and it became my hidden secret. Until the other day when the refrigerator was unplugged and everything thawed.”

It was now that Dinty took notice of the empty Tupperware container on the counter next to the toilet. It was yellowed and cracked.

“It won’t hurt him, will it?” she asked, her voice soft, dreamy.

“Hurt him?”

“Yes, this snake you’re going to use.”

He put his wet hand on her shoulder to comfort her. “No, Miss Bobcake, he’ll be just fine.”

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