Friday, July 1, 2011

Goodnight, Mrs. Morehead

This is a short story generated through a writing exercise at the NWP summer workshop I am currently taking.  The story completely evolved and shifted from a comedy about a cockatoo flapping around the head of a very tall plumber to a story about caring for a mother with the onset of dementia.

Still a draft (and in need of revision)...

Norman didn’t just duck his head or stoop his shoulders through doorways, each joint in his body participated out of necessity—an unfortunate circumstance for a plumber who by the nature of the job often accessed low and cramped spaces.  When engaged in work, Norman often resembled a preying mantis—all knees and elbows and Adam’s apple. 

He sat in his van outside Mrs. Agnes Morehead’s cape cod with the Spartan wraparound porch.  The van idled and Norman stared at his cell phone in his open palm.   He dwelled on called out sick for work this morning. Someone else could finish the work at 112 Prairie Aster Lane.

He would have to go someplace else for the rest of the day.

Jutting his face forward and tilting it sideways he admired the cleanliness and charm of the property.  Colorful annuals in tiny pots dotted the porch.  Two austere rocking chairs stood on guard on either side of one window.  And a whirligig of a man rowing a boat while another bailed water shifted slightly.

Norman looked at his phone again.   Seven fifteen.  If he was going to call out sick it would have to be now.

He put it away in his shirt pocket.  Reaching into the brown paper bag on the passenger seat he dropped a small brown vial into his other shirt pocket.  On this pocket "Norman" was stitched in red.

Opening and closing his hand, a dozen tiny snaps released from between his finger bones and then Norman shut of the van, opened the door, and disentangled himself from the driver’s seat and steering wheel.  He couldn’t do it—he couldn’t call.

He held onto the doorframe in order to slide the core of his body out without losing his balance.  With his long flat feet firmly on the street, he uncreased the rest of his body, cracked his back, and settled into who and what he was: a very tall man.

His lip frowned on the right side.  It was involuntary but truthful.  He set the tool bucket down next to him on the wooden planks of the porch and paused.  He squeezed two pieces of PVC pipe under his arm, while his pockets bulged with two new supply tubes, a bonnet, a poppet, a wax gasket, another new stop valve, and an assorted handful of gaskets, bolts, and washers.  Norman looked at the door handle and became aware of the phone in his shirt pocket.

He could still call.  He should call.

With his hand reaching for his phone again, a neighbor yelled good morning and to say so to Agnes as well.


Before finishing his statement of self-loathing Mrs. Agnes Moorehead spoke in her normal speaking tone and level—a classic old woman’s scream.

“It’s open!”

The word “open” rolled beneath the door and up up up into Norman’s cocked head with a long and undulating pitch.

Disgusted with himself for yet another morning, he pressed on the handle and opened the door.

“I was just getting my house coat…”

The door swung open slowly.

“…and saw you through the window.”

She smiled at him familiarly.

Norman folded himself under the archway and grunted inaudibly.  Again, each bone crackled its reestablishment into place and Norman grew another foot or more.

“Close the door, won’t you, son.”

On the dining room table, set directly in front of her plate of one fried egg and one slice of toast, was Mrs. Agnes Moorehead’s beloved cockatoo Baby.  With a knotty hand, she removed the cover and slipped the clasp of the cage to set Baby free inside the house.
Norman’s muscles tensed as he remained still, holding his bucket of tools and PVC pipe, one complete step inside the doorway.  He looked at the egg and around the rest of the table.

Baby immediately flop-flop-flopped her wings to Norman and then up to his face.  And just as she had done yesterday, she pounded the air to settle on a shoulder on either side of his head.

Norman’s eyes rolled up in familiar annoyance.  His pants felt heavy and uncomfortable.
It seemed as though the bird was in utter disbelief in what it saw, again—her crest stood on end and her beak hung open, agape.  For brief moments she cuddled her crest against his face—his lips purled in distaste of feathers.

The birds wide wings thumped the air and cuffed Norman in the forehead or the back of the neck whenever he moved when she clearly didn’t want him to move.

“Oh!  Baby wants to be your partner again today, Norman!  Isn’t that nice!”

In some respects it helped Norman that Mrs. Agnes Morehead yelled.

“Close the door, won’t you, son?”

He winced as wings obstructed his sight during some moments; otherwise, the wings marred his hearing.

Norman learned to walk all over again yesterday.  A recurring pattern in this house it seemed. On many occasions he stepped forward and caught an agglomeration of the pale yellow underbelly of Baby’s wings.  He learned to be patient and waited for the bird to choose his right ear or left ear to hover near.  Once he felt that Baby settled for a moment, Norman took long and quick strides—he knees stretching out far and high.

Baby had to pump her wings in order to catch up and it proved quite an effort to accelerate.  These proved to be the difficult moments for Norman.  As Baby caught up, Norman stopped to allow her to circle his head again, rubberneck in disbelief, and begin the process of trying to walk all over again.

Beads formed on his forehead and he heaved the bucket packed with tools and negotiated Baby’s flight pattern.  Across the living room, down the short hall, and into the bathroom designed on a budget, Norman grumbled out of the side of his mouth, “Beat it, Baby.”
He thought ahead when he loaded the van this morning.  Although he stared at his phone and contemplated the sick day, he shoved every tool he’d need into a bucket (it held more than his toolbox) and even those he would never need to finish the job without having to head back to the van.

In the bathroom now, Norman felt a sense of satisfaction that his face would be behind and under Mrs. Agnes Moorehead’s wet toilet.  It proved to be the only respite from Baby.

She yelled from the dining room in her normal speaking voice.

“Norman!  I’m going to fry an egg.  I haven’t had my breakfast.”

Baby still perched nearby, on the lip of the lid, and peered at Norman with a laser beam’s intensity, but he felt a sense of joy that he was winning something—he’d gotten one over on Baby this day.

In his mind, he was in a comfortable place.  He smiled at the breakfast comment.
Norman placed each tool in a neat stack, like a cord of wood, between the vanity and the toilet.  As his bones tucked beneath other bones so he could crouch, Baby settled onto the sink.  As he rose again, and bone after bone popped into a corrective state, Baby took flight again—a halo of white and pale yellow around his head.

He dropped fistfuls of parts from his pockets onto the floor near where his face would soon be, and he leaned the PVC tubing against the wall in tub.

Everything was done so he would not have to rise much, if at all, and not have to work around this bird any longer than needed.  If he could only make it to noon then he’d be fine—Baby only came out to stretch her wings in the morning.

Using the sink and the wall tile as a brace with his hands, Norman began the careful routine of tucking, bending, doubling over body parts, bones, and joints. He maneuvered like an erector set pressed together into a box that never would hold it.  He became human origami cramped into the space between the wall and toilet and he exhaled in relief.  One leg stretched well out into the hallway while the other draped over the wall of the tub and rested against the wall.

The valve still leaked.  He replaced it yesterday, but now he’d have to disassemble it and work on it again, perhaps replacing more pieces than he did yesterday.

A patient and observant plumber, Norman rated off the charts by his supervisors.  His father was a plumber—he’d died only a few years ago.

Turning off the water he flushed to empty the tank.  Baby hopped from the sink onto the bowl.

She wanted to be closer to her Norman.

Norman reached under the sink and tossed some old hand towels up into the tank.
He disassembled the stop valve against the wall and went ahead and removed the valve at the bottom of the tank. 

With elbows tucked against his chest he scrubbed everything with a wire brush and wiped each end of each piece smooth and clean with a remaining hand towel.

Perturbed, Mrs. Agnes Morehead yelled again from the dining room.

“Young man!  Er…young man!  I haven’t had my breakfast.  I’m going to fry an egg.  I like to dip toast into the yolk!”

Fascinated by her gentle giant, Baby remained on the edge of the lid, her beak and brown eyes inches from Norman’s face. 

He replaced everything, leaned up to reach in for the towels in the tank—Baby rubbed her head against his face again—and then settled back down to turn on the water.

He spit fragments of feathers from his lips.  Baby shifted from talon to talon.

Norman reached up with his hand, flushed, and everything continued to leak.
He pushed on as his father had instructed him.  In twenty minutes time, Norman had removed the suspected failing parts again and replaced everything again, this time with newer parts.

Time passed and his struggle with the slow leak continued.

He repeated the process a third time, trying different combinations of today’s newer parts with yesterday’s new parts.

He looked up and saw Mrs. Agnes Moorehead standing near the doorway looking at neither him nor Baby.

“Everything ok?”

Her eyes blinked once and she seemed to see him again.  And smiled.

“I’m going to fry an egg, sir.”

Norman held back his grin—her yelling echoed through the tiny quarters.

“Didn’t you already eat?”

When he didn’t hear a reply, he looked up and she was gone, but Baby continued to gawk at him.

Norman continued to wipe beneath the toilet, but could not pin point the leak. 

Baby flapped and fluffed her wings in agitation.  She smacked Norman on the head again and again like something out of long retired vaudeville animal act.

He finished wiping and he knew what he had to do.  He loathed the thought of it, but he couldn’t see any other way for peace.

Foot by foot, and bone by bone, Norman unsnarled himself from beneath Mrs. Agnes Moorehead’s toilet and stood to the relief of his bones and the flop-flop-flop of Baby staring directly in Norman’s eyes.

Norman took the brown vial from his shirt and stared back at the bird.

“Pardon me.  Sir.  I have to excuse myself to the privy if you don’t mind.  Is it safe?”

He dropped the vial back into his shirt and excused himself to the living room while Baby pelted his face and head and neck with her flapping wings.

Mrs. Agnes Moorehead returned to the living room and they stared at one another as strangers.

“I like to dip my toast in the yolk.”

And then she shuffled on by to sit in isolation in her dining room chair.  Only fried egg whites remained on five separate plates.


Norman began to speak.   But he stopped himself, and so, he and the bird returned to the bathroom.


Norman took a rag and stuffed the bottom of the sink and turned on the water.


He removed the tank lip and held it in his left hand.  With his right he turned off the water in the sink.


Also with is right, he removed the vial from his pocket again, twisted the cap off with his teeth and dumped the contents into the tank of the toilet—red food coloring.
He replaced the lid, checked for any spilled food coloring, and then returned to the living room.


“I’ll need to come back in an hour or so, but you can not use the bathroom.  Can I take you next door?  Mrs. Murdoch told me to say good morning to you.”

She seemed to stare at old pictures in gold frames and didn’t move or respond.  The dining room remained dark.  On the table in front of her sat an empty open cage and five plates of uneaten fried egg whites.

Norman repeated his question.


She didn’t respond.  She was someplace else and learned he would have to wait for her to return.  She was ok where she was—he would have to wait.

Norman sat on the sofa, the carpet worn in his usual place beneath his feet, and stared back at an old woman who didn’t know him anymore.

The scent of a burning egg intensified.


1 comment:

  1. Hi Brian, I ran across this post recently and enjoyed your story. I just posted my review of it here: