Mr. Briggs paid the little man five dollars to crawl under the house and see if the fool cat had up and died down there. Mrs. Briggs said there was some kind of odor. She couldn’t put her finger on it, just something odd. She couldn’t describe it. It was there and then it wasn’t. She had to cock her head just so to catch it.
Mr. Briggs couldn’t smell it. He got down on his hands and knees and looked under the house. He wished he could just slither under it, but he was too large. It was really out of the question for him to try and squeeze himself in down there. He tried and nearly got stuck. The little man disappeared under the house while Mr. Briggs stood by limply. Then Mr. Briggs got irritated when Mrs. Briggs decided the odor was gone and she insisted they pay the little man more money to fix leaky pipes he had discovered.
The little man, whose name was Gup, came back the next day to fix the pipes. There really was no mystery about him, though many people in Helena, Arkansas, seemed to think there was because he appeared and disappeared from time to time like a wraith. There was a rumor he’d been part of some sort of act in a circus and married the singing fat lady, who nobody ever saw, and there had been plenty of folks traipse past their trailer on the edge of town to try and catch a glimpse of her. He was just a little man, a really small man with a waist as precious as a little girl’s, and nobody knew where he came from originally. He just sprouted up in Helena one day that no one could pinpoint exactly.
The day the little man showed up at the Briggs house he wore a black watch cap, a soiled white t-shirt, and faded khaki chinos tucked into battered brown boots. Sometimes he did odd jobs around town and sometimes he worked on fishing boats on the Mississippi River. That’s where he got the watch cap. He wore the cap everywhere. When he took it off to say hello to Mrs. Briggs, she saw his hair was slicked down with oil and his smile was a s eager as a young boy’s.
The little man plastered the cap back on his little head and plucked a long, thick black flashlight from a back pocket. He scooted under the Briggs house like he was a water bug, leaving his legs sticking out while he got his bearings. Mrs. Briggs leaned over and saw the faint light of the flashlight beam dancing along timbers and brick. One of the little man’s pants legs had come out of his boots. Mrs. Briggs stared nervously at the cold whiteness of his exposed calf before his legs disappeared.
“I never knew there was such a man,” Mrs. Briggs told her neighbor, Mrs. Stratton, who had come over to see what the fuss was a bout. “I don’t think he weighs a hundred pounds.”
“He’s a little man alright,” Mrs. Stratton said.
“His wife, why she weighs 300 if she weighs a pound,” Mrs. Briggs said. “She’s just fat – but she’s human, I suppose.”
“You ever see her?” Mrs. Stratton asked.
“No,” Mrs. Briggs said. “I hear she stays home all the time, on account of her size. He takes care of her, gets her what she needs, I suppose.”
Mrs. Briggs could hear the little man crawling under the house, but she couldn’t see him. She hadn’t realized how she would feel having him down there rooting about. Mrs. Briggs looked around and saw that Mrs. Stratton had returned to the safety of her own yard. Mrs. Briggs felt a little too exposed and vulnerable. She hurried into the house.
Mrs. Briggs found Mr. Briggs sitting in his favorite easy chair, reading the Daily Telegraph. He was reading about the rapes and murders up in Memphis. He always complained about the bad news and the sordid methods people employed when they preyed on each other, but that never stopped him from reading about it. Mrs. Briggs said he might have a fetish, which vexed Mr. Briggs so much he wouldn’t speak to her for a whole day, and when he finally did he reminded her that only perverts had fetishes. He also looked it up in a dictionary when she wasn’t around to make sure he knew what it was.
But despite his protests, reading the paper was about all Mr. Briggs ever did in the two years since his retirement. He was 55 and growing plump after 30 years as a bookkeeper at the basket factory in Helena. His uncle had got him the job right after Mr. Briggs was discharged from the Army in 1945. Back then Mr. Briggs had been a slim and fidgety man who could never make up his mind to like one woman or another until he met Mrs. Briggs, who wasn’t Mrs. Briggs at the time, but who desired a marriage because she was 29 and had never made up her mind about marrying someone. Mrs. Briggs folded her hands in her lap and examined Mr. Briggs, who clutched his paper in a fierce grip.
“All these rapes,” he muttered. “Now that’s one I never understood.”
Mrs. Briggs nodded and sat quietly. She was 49 but had a figure nearly as trim as when she married Mr. Briggs twenty years ago. Working as a cosmetics clerk at Woolworth’s four days a week kept her on her feet, but Mrs. Briggs always told relatives it was her metabolism that kept the weight off.
“What don’t you understand about it, dear?” Mrs. Briggs finally asked.
Mr. Briggs lowered his paper and tried to look her in the eyes but couldn’t. “Why a fella does it is all I meant,” he said. “A fella could just up and pay some money and have what he want, especially there in Memphis. Why, I remember what it was like there during the war. It was all over that Hotel Peabody.”
“What was it like, dear?” she said. “Mr. Briggs, I’d really like to know what it was like at the Hotel Peabody.” She noticed that she had started calling him Mr. briggs from time to time, like he was her father instead of husband. And sometimes she caught herself thinking, who is this man who has lived in my house all these years? But
Mr. Briggs declined to answer. He read the news section, the sports, the features, and the classifieds. He read the job ads and made little comments to Mrs. Briggs about how hard it must be to find a job nowadays, and how lucky he was to retire in his 50s – and how they had enough saved and invested so that Mrs. Briggs could quit her job any time she wanted. The little man, he said, still had to plug away hauling slimy carp and buffalo on wet boats, and knock about under strange houses with other people’s pipes – and the little man was probably older than he looked, too.
Mrs. Briggs wanted to press her case, but thought better of it, figuring he had said all he was going to say about the rapes and murders for a while. Instead she took another path.
“Well, Mr. Briggs, I don’t think I care to leave my job, investments or not. We can always use the money to keep groceries in the house.”
Before Mr. Briggs could think of a reply, they heard the little man banging something under the house. Mr. Briggs folded his paper and listened, his head cocked as if he were second-guessing a piano tuner. Mrs. Briggs fussed with some yarn. She tried to picture the little man in the dark with only a flashlight beam to guide him. She got flushed as she thought of him wriggling about down there in damp, close quarters. There was something about the little man that kept her in perpetual fluster, but she was darned if she could put her finger on it.
“What’s he banging for?” Mr. Briggs said. “I’m paying him to do some taping, not banging.”
“How old do you think he is?” Mrs. Briggs asked as she smoothed her dress.
“I couldn’t say,” Mr. Briggs said. “He’s small, so I guess he comes across younger.”
“God knows what he’s coming across down there,” Mrs. Briggs said. “All manner of filth, I suppose.”
“He’s probably seen worse,” Mr. Briggs said. “Out there on them boats.”
“Yes, dear,” Mrs. Briggs said. “I imagine he’s seen an awful lot.”
“You can bet his kind sees plenty.” Mr. Briggs opened his paper again.
Mrs. Briggs recognized the opening: “Did you used to see plenty, dear? At the Hotel Peabody, I mean.” She had it in her mind that Mr. Briggs was like a battery that had lost its charge.
Mr. Briggs chewed his lip. His fingers dug into the paper, wrinkling it. “I didn’t get there that much,” he said firmly. “I had a steady girl then. I told you about her. I wasn’t one of them that ran around all hours. I spent most leaves on picnics or at her folks’ house in Memphis.”
“Yes, Mr. Briggs,” Mrs. Briggs said. “You told me about Gretchen. It’s really a lovely name. But, dear, you did spend some time at the Hotel Peabody – isn’t that right? What was it like? Did you take Gretchen to the Hotel Peabody?”
“I don’t recall,” Mr. Briggs said, but his face glowed crimson.
“You don’t remember?” she said. “Mr. Briggs, how could you not remember where you took a steady girl? It’s Ok if you want to tell me about other women. I’ll understand. I know there were needs.”
Mr. Briggs had at that moment as close a look to mortification as ever played across his face. “I kept my needs to myself,” he sputtered, his upper lip glistening with spittle. “I tried to keep my hands off people. I kept myself clean. I went to church.”
“Yes, Mr. Briggs. You’re a very clean man. But it’s really, truly Ok if you want to tell me about it. Don’t you want to tell me about it?”
“No. There’s nothing to tell.”
“There must be something from those good old days you’d like to talk about,” she said. “They were good old days, weren’t they, Mr. Briggs?”
“They were Ok,” he said. “There was a war on, for God’s sake.” He lowered his paper again. “Must you call me Mr. Briggs? I’m not your pappy.”
“Of course you aren’t,” she said. “I don’t think I ever said you were.”
“Well, it just sounds unnatural to even suggest it,” he said. “Even to joke about it.”
“I see,” Mrs. Briggs said. “Really I do.” She let him read some more on the rapes and murders of Memphis for a few minutes and then took another stab at it. “Dear, did they have the ducks back then? Did the ducks parade through the Hotel Peabody lobby when you were there?”
“Ducks?” Mr. Briggs looked dazed. “I don’t recall any ducks.”
“I’ve seen the ducks on television,” Mrs. Briggs said. “And Vi Stratton told me she’s actually seen them, there at the Hotel Peabody. Of course, they weren’t the original ones. The offspring was what Vi saw. I imagine them ducks just keep having other ducks. They don’t think about it. They just do it.”
Mr. Briggs looked at his wife and wondered if it was too early to go to the VFW for a beer.
“Are you sorry we didn’t have offspring?” Mrs. Briggs said earnestly. “I mean children, of course.”
Mr. Briggs ran a hand through his bristly hair and cleared his throat. “What’s all this talk about children? I thought we handled that a long time ago. You’re too old for kids, aren’t you?”
“I suppose I am,” Mrs. Briggs said. “But I’ve heard of women doing it at my age. It usually doesn’t work, but they do try. You never know about those things. Could you just believe it’s possible?”
Mr. Briggs opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He was still trying to speak when he realized the little man had stopped banging under the house. Soon there was a banging on the back door. Mr. Briggs got up to answer it.
“No,” Mrs. Briggs said. “I’ll go.” She stared at Mr. Briggs a moment. He took off his glasses and fumbled in a pocket for a handkerchief. He started to say something, but looked up and caught just a glimpse of one of Mrs. Briggs’ fleshy legs as she eased into the kitchen. In that moment, as her leg seemed frozen in a spotlight, naked and pink, Mr. Briggs squirmed in his chair. The pure rawness of Mrs. Briggs’ leg shocked him. He had a sudden and nearly overpowering urge to touch it. The desire seemed to come out of nowhere. He almost rose from his chair and followed her. As he heard her shoes smack across the linoleum kitchen floor he instead sagged deeper into his chair and felt sweaty.
The little man looked into the kitchen through the back door screen. He peered through the wire mesh with hands cupped to his face, like a boy thirsty from mowing the lawn would.
“I’d like some water, it it’s not too much trouble,” he said.
Mrs. Briggs stared for a moment, the image of the little man’s fat wife crossing her mind. “Sure,” she said, opening the door. “It’s no trouble.”
“Better just bring it out to me,” he said. “My feet are muddy.”
“Muddy? Oh, it must be from the leaky pipes down there.”
“Yes, Ma’am. It’s them pipes causing all the trouble.”
She opened the door and gave him the glass and he stuck a foot in the door and held the glass with both of his little pink hands. Child hands, Mrs. Briggs thought, while she leaned against the doorway and watched him drink, water running from the corners of his mouth in tiny rivulets. They stood there, quite close to each other. The sun was brilliant behind the little man.
“Is it very warm under there?” Mrs. Briggs said.
The little man looked up at her, his eyes squinting. He wiped his mouth and grinned. “Warm enough to boil a snake.”
She regarded that for a moment. “I don’t understand,” she lied.
“Yes, ma’am, it’s plenty warm under there.” He smiled again.
The little man handed the empty glass back to Mrs. Briggs and their hands touched. The little man’s fingers were short but quite thick and their touch made Mrs. Briggs blink. She was reminded of pink sausage links gleaming with coats of cooking oil.
“There’s something I need,” the little man said, and the grin ripped across his face. “Something I need you to handle for me.”
“What would that be?” Mrs. Briggs said. Her throat was dry.
‘Tape,” the little man replied. “I need more. This job is bigger than I expected. Getting bigger all the time.”
“Oh,” Mrs. Briggs said as she looked down at her shoes.
“And some beer, maybe,” the little man said. “It’s just the day for a cold beer, don’t you think?”
“Five bucks ought to cover it,” he said, reaching out and touching her elbow with his small pink hand. “You got five on you?”
She fished around in the pockets of her light sundress and noticed her palms were sweaty. When she looked up the little man was still grinning.
“I can walk down to the hardware store,” he said. “It won’t take no time at all.”
She found the money and gave it to him. He rolled up the bill and tucked itn into a pocket of his tight chinos.
“I think we have some beer,” Mrs. Briggs said. “My husband usually keeps some in the house. But I’d have to check. I don’t know. You understand, it’s really up to my husband.”
“Sure it is,” the little man said. “I know that.”
The little man went down the porch steps and then turned and looked at her. He still had a big grin on his face and he stood there for what seemed an awfully long time to Mrs. Briggs, and then he walked toward downtown. Mrs. Briggs had to use a hand to shield her eyes from the sun as she watched him walk. That was when she realized he had probably been looking through her thin dress. She was embarrassed to know it didn’t make her angry.
Mrs. Briggs was still leaning against the doorway when Mr. Briggs appeared. He opened the back door and stepped onto the porch. He saw the little man walking several blocks away.
“Now where’s he going?” Mr. Briggs said. “I’m paying him to tape those pipes.”
“He’s going to the hardware store,” Mrs. Briggs said. “To get more tape. He ran out.”
“Running out is right,” Mr. Briggs said. “Likely he’s going to cozy up to a bar stool someplace. I suppose I should count myself lucky I’m not paying by the hour.”
“You should count yourself lucky you aren’t paying a real plumber to fix those pipes properly,” Mrs. Briggs said, a little surprised at her outburst. Mr. Briggs was surprised, too, and didn’t say anything for a minute.
“There’s nothing wrong with a little cheap fix,” he finally said. “The man said they weren’t leaking bad. A plumber would just exaggerate the problem and charge and arm and a leg.”
“And maybe fix the problem,” Mrs. Briggs said. “This is just a band-aid. Water can’t be denied. You can dam things up just so long.”
“What’s a little water here and there?” Mr. Briggs said. “Nobody looks under the house. If the tape holds, why poke around any further? Why stir things up? Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke is what I always say.”
“Wisdom to live by,” Mrs. Briggs said. Mr. Briggs followed her back to the cool living room. He checked the cooling level on the air conditioner’s controls. The big, squat air conditioner hummed behind him as he lit his pipe and reached for his paper. He settled into the chair and re-read the news section. Mrs. Briggs tried to read the Ladies Home Journal.
The banging started again. It was quite rhythmic. Mr. Briggs lowered his paper a few seconds, long enough to cock his head, frown, and then he was back into rapes and murders of Memphis. He read the stories over and over, confident none of it had anything to do with him.
Mrs. Briggs got up from her chair, but Mr. Briggs didn’t seem to notice.The banging was steady and Mrs. Briggs could feel the vibrations from it seep through the floor and penetrate the soles of her thin slipper. She felt the vibrations tickle her ankles and flow over her thighs and glide up her thighs. She hurried through the kitchen and down the back steps and stood in the yard, where she kicked off her slippers and savored the warmth of the earth radiating up through her feet.
She walked around a corner of the house and could hear the banging again. It was quite a racket and she suddenly couldn’t imagine what the banging really was for. She got confused when she imagined the banging might never go away. She had a terrifying image of the little man living forever under the house as he burrowed deeper, deeper, deeper into the rich, black soil that never felt the sun.
“Hey,” she yelled at the darkness under the house. “Hey.”
The banging stopped. “What it is?” the little man said.
“All that banging,” Mrs. Briggs said. “Will you stop it? I don’t understand. What are you banging?”
“I’m just straightening out some of the bends. Your pipes were a little cockeyed. That’s to be expected with age. I taped the leaks. Now I’m straightening out the flow.”
“Stop it, please,” she said. “You have to stop.”
“Sure,” he said. “It’s done. You don’t have to get in a lather. I’ve got you straightened out down here.” The little man slid out from under the house and got to his feet. He stood very close to Mrs. Briggs for a moment before he gathered his tools and was gone. In that moment when they were close, Mrs. Briggs felt warmth envelop her like when the sun darted from behind a cloud.
Mr. Briggs came out and called for his wife, but she didn’t answer. He found her leaning against the house. The little man was blocks away, a speck collapsing into nothing among trees and shrubbery. Mrs. Briggs calmly snared her husband’s hand and led him into the house. She guided him through the living room and down a hall and paused only once to smile at the bewildered look on his face. Mrs. Briggs coaxed him into their bedroom and to their bed. Mr. Briggs had the uncertain look of a motorist stranded by a roadside.
It had become late afternoon and silver rays of light shimmied through the window blinds. Mrs. Briggs shed her dress, and when she revealed her pale breasts the nipples were hard and pink and Mr. Briggs gasped. A breeze ruffled the blinds and the light filtered through in wavy stripes that danced on her body. Mr. Briggs reached for her, his hand seeming to be in slow motion. When it finally rested on her warm thigh he gasped again. Mrs. Briggs sounded like she was humming softly. Mr. Briggs’ hand moved along her thigh profoundly, like a carpenter sanding a board.
Mrs. Briggs closed her eyes while Mr. Briggs touched her. He really didn’t know where to start. She had to put his hand here and there and he did it like a man expecting to burn his fingers at any moment. She pulled Mr. Briggs closer, but the coupling was awkward, like two rusty gears needing a spurt of oil to mesh, and after a bit it stalled and they were left in an uncomfortable embrace. They disentangled arms and legs and fell apart into a stunning silence. They couldn’t think of anything to say, and anyway Mr. Briggs soon fell asleep, his breath a low squeak. Mrs. Briggs watched his white stomach rise and fall and tried very hard to remember how it had been when they got married. Their honeymoon on the Gulf of Mexico at Biloxi, Mississippi, had been sunny and warm and they had walked the sizzling beaches barefoot and ate shrimp with their fingers and made love adequately but not spectacularly, though Mrs. Briggs had not fretted much about it then because she was young and hadn’t discovered yet that hope was not always enough.
Mrs. Briggs swung her feet over the side of the bed and sat up. She covered her lap with her dress. On the dresser was a framed picture of the two of them from those promising days long ago at the Sea-Ray Motel in Biloxi. She let the dress fall to the floor and went to the dresser for a closer look, tilting the frame to catch the waning light oozing through the blinds. In the picture Mr. and Mrs. Briggs are sitting on stools at a bamboo bar under a palm tree, drinking tropical drinks with umbrellas in them. They are tan and healthy. She can almost feel the gentle gulf breezes brushing her hair and smell the coconut-scented tanning lotion on their faces and arms. She holds the picture closer to her face, looking for clues that these two people will wake up one day and not recognize each other.
Later in the kitchen, when they were dressed and drinking coffee, neither knew what to say. They tried to smile, but could only manage something grotesque. The cold silence between them was as thick as gray fog. Mrs. Briggs poured herself a second cup, but abruptly frowned and sniffed the air.
“My word, there’s that odor again,” she said. “I’m sure of it. Don’t you smell it, Mr. Briggs?” He felt queasy and glanced at his hands a moment before meeting her eyes. A wisp of steam rose from her coffee and curled lazily across her face. “Yes,” he whispered. “Yes – I think I do smell it.” “I’ll grant you it’s quite faint,” she said. “But it’s there. You really do smell it don’t you, Mr. Briggs?”
“Of course,” he said.
Mrs. Briggs put down her coffee and crossed her arms across her chest. She looked out the window and her gaze traveled far beyond the beds of gardenias and tulips to the Gulf of Mexico, where a strong breeze scoured palm trees, their fronds rubbing against each other as though whispering secrets. A determined little sloop, sails flapping, braved the growing blue swells. It rose and plunged but kept on course for home.
As Mrs. Briggs watched a squadron of pelicans cut across the sloop’s bow and skim low over the water, she said, “I should call the little man back, then. We really should have him back.”
“Yes,” Mr. Briggs said quietly as he stared out the window at nothing in particular. “By all means call him back.”