“Richard, honey, why do you torture poor Fannie with that Darth Vader voice?” Bunny Gutierrez asked with her refined Texas accent. Her long blond hair swept back into a pony tail behind her head, crowning her statuesque figure.
Richard laughed. His devilish grin draped his face like the Miss America sash.
I rolled my eyes. “Bunny,” I said, shivering from the memory, “don’t get him started.”
“Fannie, it’s your story, Richard said, winking, “you should tell it.”
“Bunny, before you and George moved to the neighborhood, we had an ancient furnace and hot water heater,” I said, “You may have heard me talk about Ol’ Betsy and the Bubblator. . .”
* * *
The morning sun bled through the freezing fog, which draped Highway 16. It rolled west across the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and wrapped its arms around Gig Harbor, Washington. The temperature stayed in the 20-degree Fahrenheit range for the first week of March.
Fannie, do you smell that?” Richard asked. He walked down the hallway to the kitchen.
“It smells like ozone and burnt hair,” I said, wrinkling my nose.
“Look at the smoke detector. Is that smoke?” Richard asked, swiping his finger through the brown soot halo surrounding it. His finger left a streak.
The ring darkened around the smoke detector.
“Oh my god,” I said, running my fingers through my brown hair, “it scorched the paint.”
“Do you hear that?” Richard asked.
“I’ve got the dishwasher and the washing machine going. Why?”
“Look down,” Richard said, pointing at my feet.
Water poured in rivulets from the kitchen and the laundry room. Steam rose from the carpet as it raced by our shoes into the family room forming a tropical indoor water feature.
“What the hell?” I said, grabbing the dish towels from the drawer. I charged the dishwasher like Don Quixote charged a windmill.
“Forget the dishwasher, you need to get the water cut off. You grab the water key and get outside.” Richard said, the pitch of his voice dropping into the crawlspace with the water.
“What’re you gonna do?” I asked, sloshing my way toward the garage behind Richard.
“Turn off the electrical before the house catches on fire,” Richard said. His stride doubled and created a rooster tail. I trotted to keep up.
Richard opened the door to the garage. Water cascaded into the garage. Ol’ Betsy clanked like a ranch cook calling farm hands in for dinner. I grabbed the water key from the wall next to the Bubblator. He bubbled like an old percolator.
Richard reached the electrical panel. He threw the main circuit. A small tendril of black smoke escaped Ol’ Betsy like a sigh of relief.
Outside the garage, I broke the ice off the cover to the water main. Using the key like a lever, I heaved the lid off. Inserting the key into the handle and turning it until it stopped, the sound of water evaporated.
Richard removed Ol’ Betsy’s front panel. Scorch marks covered the motor.
I called our Insurance Agent.
“Oh my, Mrs. Cranium, that sounds bad, we’ll get an adjustor out to your place in the couple of weeks. There are a lot of broken pipes this time of year, yah know. The adjustor’ll be able to help with the water damage, but I’m afraid you’re on your own with the furnace. That’s a maintenance issue and not covered.”
Try living without heat for an extended period of time.
On the bright side, our gas and electric bills migrated to less than $10 a month.
Three months crawled by before the insurance adjuster came to the house to view the damage.
We lacked heat. Part of the lights remained turned off since they shared the same circuit as the furnace. And our house smelled of mold. He took pity on us.
The insurance company cut a check three days later.
Richard held the check in his hand. “Fannie, we have enough money to replace the dish washer, washer, dryer, and carpeting with a little left over. We have a decision. There’s enough money here to cover the electrical or replace the furnace, not both.”
I massaged the back of my neck for a moment. “What if instead of replacing the carpeting professionally, we get floor tile and laminate, and install it ourselves,” I said. “My dad can help us. He loves that sort of thing.”
“Your dad huh?” Richard studied me for a moment. “That doesn’t answer the question about the electrical or heat,” he said, putting the check on the kitchen counter between us.
I filled up our coffee cups. The steam danced above our cups. “The only damage to Ol’ Betsy is the motor, right?” I asked.
“We replace the motor,” I said, tapping my index finger against my lips. “That should last a few more years. That’ll leave us with enough to repair the electrical without borrowing money. What do you think?”
Richard ran his finger around the lip of his coffee cup. “Let’s do it.”
* * *
Richard and I unloaded the flooring from the back of the Love Wagon, a red Ford F150 with queen futon and disco ball removed for purposes of hauling.
The sky blue Mobile Land Yacht pulled into our driveway. The Love Wagon reflected in the high gloss wax. My father climbed out of the car—dressed in a white t-shirt with front pocket, black Bermuda shorts, black trouser socks and black sandals.
“Dad, that’s what you’re wearing to lay down flooring?” I asked, my eyebrows matching the peaks of the Olympic Mountains. “Are you nuts?” I asked.
“Fannie, I am your father,” he said with a smile, “I brought my coveralls, knee pads, work boots, and gloves. But who wants to wear that on the first warm, sunny day we’ve had since October?” Winking at Richard, he said, “And in case it gets too hot, I brought my Speedo tool belt.”
My stomach did a two and a half somersault with a twist before splash down. The vision of my father’s pot belly hanging out over a red Speedo bikini with twigs and dirt clinging to his skin flashed up from the archives of my mind. The bikini hanging low supporting a hammer, a tape measure, and two clippers never faded. Sweat acting like an adhesive allowing the bikini to defy gravity—gave me the heebie jeebies.
Richard laughed. “Well Conrad, it looks like you’re in time to help us unload while Fannie recovers,” he said, his devilish grin commandeered his face.
“So what happened with Ol’ Betsy?” my father asked. He picked up a box of tiles.
“Everyone wants to replace these days, no one wants to repair. It only took seven phone calls to find someone who would replace the motor,” Richard said, shaking his head.
We stacked the tile in a neat cube on the garage floor next to the left over pile of plywood. We staged the laminate next to the tile.
My father pulled a handkerchief from his pocket. He mopped his forehead. “Have you to rented a tile cutter yet?”
Richard and I looked at each other. “A tile cutter?” I asked.
“Trust me, you don’t want to score tile by hand,” he said, polishing the bald spot of his horseshoe hairdo, “it will save time and our knees. Where are the tile spacers, grout, backer board, membrane, and the rest of the tools?”
* * *
Two days later, the rented tile saw sat in the garage underneath the flickering fluorescent light fixture. Tile spacers sat on the work bench along with sponges, trowel, putty knife, bucket, rags, setting material, and matching grout. The backer board and waterproof membrane lay on top of the plywood in the corner.
Ol’ Betsy clanked when my father walked into the garage. “I see Ol’ Betsy’s back on her feet,” he said, putting his hand on my shoulder.
“Yeah, now we have heat when we don’t need it,” I said, laughing. “And I won’t be able to help you guys beyond today. The manager of our Seattle office was in a car accident and will be out for the next six weeks, so I’ll be covering and commuting.”
“Fannie, I am your father. I’m sure Richard and I will manage somehow without you,” he said, mimicking Richard’s devilish grin.
Centipedes crawled up my spine.
The next evening, I pulled into the driveway. The garage door stood open. Richard’s back faced the driveway. He stood next to the tile saw using a shiny miter saw. He did not hear me approach.
I waited until he finished his cut, and tapped him on the shoulder. He jumped sideways. The shriek, which left his lips, would have challenged a mezzo soprano.
“Don’t scare me like that,” Richard said, clutching his chest. I could see his pulse beating in his neck.
“Sorry,” I said, stifling a laugh. “So what’s with the new power tool.”
Richard’s shoulders relaxed. He exchanged fright for the smile of an eight-year-old boy with a new train set. “Your dad told me I had to have this.”
“He did, did he,” I said, shaking my head.
“It’s so cool, look what it can do,” Richard said, grabbing a piece of flooring and running it through the saw at an angle. Counting on my love of all things power tools, he had me at cool.
“Can I try?” I asked, picking up a pair of safety glasses.
* * *
“Bunny, every night for the next two weeks, I came home to find new power tools that my father told Richard we couldn’t live without,” I said shaking my head. “They finished laying the tile and the laminate at the end of week three.”
Richard laughed. I stuck my tongue out at him.
Bunny laughed. “Fannie, honey, that doesn’t explain the Darth Vader voice,” Bunny said, her pony tail wagging behind her head.
“The voice,” I said, shuddering. “They finished on a Friday night. Traffic was horrible, all I wanted to do was come home and crawl in bed.” I crossed my arms rubbing them for warmth. “My dad’s car was still in the driveway when I got home. I walked in the house to find them enjoying a beer together.”
Richard and my father sat on the sofa in the family room. Both men dressed in white t-shirts with front pocket, black Bermuda shorts, black trouser socks and black sandals. Richard shaved his head to match my father’s trimmed horseshoe hairdo. Music from Star Wars played on the stereo.
I stood in the hallway. My jaw unhinged. The thud it made when it hit the ground signaled my presence. They raised their beers to me.
Darth Vader’s theme poured from the speakers. Richard, smiling with his devilish grin set to red alert, said, “Fannie, I am your father.”