"Sorry, running a little late this morning." Rick apologized as he slid into the well-worn leatherette seat of the diner's booth.
Jahnke's South Shore Diner was a good place for breakfast, and the usual seven o'clock locals had the place bustling. The early summer visitors would crowd in after nine o'clock, having risen late and showered, when they would begin feeling distinctly brunch-like.
"You’re not late, just not exactly on time." Jerry Guttmacher grinned back. "Late night?"
"No, just a long day." He pulled a hand over his face. "Had a pipe replacement over on West Princeton Street yesterday."
"Damn thing must have been leaking in the wall for months – a tiny leak, all draining down the outside wall."
"What, and they never noticed?"
"It sounds crazy, but nothing showed on the inside. Water must have trickled down into the basement and into the sump. It was the musty smell that got them to call me."
They were interrupted by a new arrival who cleared her throat. "Morning Jerry, how are ya, Rick. What can I get you this morning?"This was Wanda Jahnke's standard greeting, delivered in a rapid-fire staccato voice that brooked no delay in responding.
"I'll have the usual, Wanda," replied Jerry, playing his part.
"Same for me." Rick knew his lines in this little play, too.
"Two eggs, sunny side up, whole wheat toast, sausage, orange juice, and black coffee, times two, coming right up."The ritual never varied. Wanda bustled off.
"Sometimes, I wonder why they don't have it ready for us when we get here." Jerry laughed.
"Well, we're not here every day."
"You and I have been here Tuesdays and Thursdays for the past fifteen years. Isn't that good enough?"
"I guess not."
"So: You spent all yesterday ripping out drywall?" Jerry prompted.
"Worse. Plaster and lath. It was in that old house on the corner of Peach and West Princeton. Yellow, white trim. You know the place I mean?"
Jerry shook his head. "Sorry. I'll take your word for it."
"I hate old houses." Rick's tone challenged Jerry to disagree, but his tablemate declined to do so.
Jerry grinned. He was about to say something humorous, but Rick went on. "And then, after a bitch of a day, I go to the grocery store and who shows up to make my day?"
"Don't tell me. Let me guess."
"I'm at the checkout, minding my own business, when there she is. Rita McKee, all 'Ricky, sweetheart' and 'You promised to take me to Madison this week.'"
Jerry couldn't restrain his laugh. It nearly filled the restaurant. "I swear, Rico, one day that woman will get you to Madison whether you want to go or not."
"That's not the worst of it."
"No, the worst is that she insisted on putting a bottle of wine in my cart, and handed the cashier a twenty dollar bill. Said it was payment for goodwill."
"So? You got a free bottle of wine."
"Yeah, but the cashier was Doris Steinmeyer. You know the whole thing was probably broadcast all over the state of Wisconsin before the eleven o'clock news. Should've just put the scene on YouTube."
"Rico, she's just trying to keep you sweet, man. She keeps calling you to do work on her rentals; and there's probably a referral or two in there, someplace."
"Why don't you refer her to somebody else?"
"You seeing someone I don't know about?"
Rick shook his head. "Doesn't change much, does it? You always bring it around to that, sooner or later."
"Can I help it that you're so picky? You make yourself an easy target, buddy."
"Yeah, well, maybe I'm tired of being shot at." There was a little heat in Rick's voice.
Just then, Wanda Jahnke arrived with breakfast, and not a moment too soon. "Here ya go, boys. Anything else?" She handed down two laden plates with an almost alarming efficiency.
"No, thanks, Wanda." Rick spoke for both of them. It was part of the ritual.
"Great. You need anything, you know to holler."
The two friends looked at each other for a moment.
Jerry smiled. "Sorry, man. I know Rita's a sore subject."
"No, it's okay." Rick softened his tone, too. "I'm just tired of my love life being the talk of the town."
Both men started in on their plates. With conversation at a momentary standstill, it was possible to overhear talk at nearby tables.
"So, how many homos does it take to screw in a lightbulb?" A loud voice behind him spoke over the general hubbub.
Rick did not want to hear it. He'd heard too many of these from the Neanderthals in town.
"Just two, but…"
Rick coughed, loudly. Maybe he really was choking.
"Hey, you okay?"Jerry looked up with a concerned expression.
"I'm fine. It's okay." Rick took a deep breath. He dug into his eggs again and restarted the conversation. "So, how'd the last trip to Appleton go?"
"Great. Cheryl was pronounced free and clear. The doc says there's complete remission."
"That's wonderful news." Rick grinned, happy for Jerry and his wife.
"You bet it is. We just about flew up Route Ten on the way home. Almost got a speeding ticket in Marion, but Cheryl showed the cop her clean bill of health from the hospital, and we got off with a warning."
"Sounds like it was your lucky day. Did you buy a lottery ticket?"
Jerry made a face as he took a bite of toast. "We'll be all right. Thank God Cheryl had good insurance."
Rick nodded. He didn’t want to think about what would happen if he got really sick. Then again, he didn't have any children to worry about.
"But we made a decision, driving back." Jerry was beaming now.
"We're going to do it."
"You mean you haven't done it enough?" Rick could play the game, too.
"Shit, Rico, you know what I mean. We're really going to Hawaii. Just the two of us, a second honeymoon kind of thing. We’ve talked about it long enough." Jerry speared a bit of sausage with enthusiasm.
"That's great. When are you going?"
"We'll go in September. Maybe the second week. That way, the kids will be in school."
"I said I would watch the kids for you."
"I know, Rick buddy, but Cheryl's mom is practically begging to do it. What I really need you to do is stop and look in at the garage every now and then."
"I was going to ask how you were going to manage that."
"Well, you know I hired Jared West, right?"
Rick sipped his coffee and thought hard. "Yeah. I remember. Art Schell's stepson, right? Good kid. He’ll be a senior at the high school. Hockey player, isn't he?"
Jerry grinned at his friend. "Jeez, Rick, you have his FBI file, too?"
"So what about him?"
"He's a nice kid and all, but he's not going to be ready to run the whole place by himself. He can make some basic repairs, pump gas and all that, but it would be good if he had an adult to fall back on."
"What, are you calling me an adult now?"
"If the shoe fits," Jerry laughed.
"Okay, here's another adult question. What about school hours?"
"I've got old Dieter Shultz to come out of retirement until Jared can get to the garage after classes. Dieter can write down a work order and just about handle a cash register."
"And which one of these two do you need me to take care of?"
"Both. Look, it's the best I can do."
Rick smiled at his friend. "Sure, it's fine. I'll make sure Dieter and Jared stay out of trouble. You and Cheryl don't have to worry about anything."
"Thanks, Rico. I owe you." Jerry returned to his eggs.
"Forget about it. No problem." Rick was about to say something else, but he was interrupted.
"Ricky!There you are, Ricky-Ticky, I've been looking all over for you!" Rita McKee's sharp, clarion-clear voice rang in the diner.
"Why didn't you answer your phone?" she demanded, arriving at their booth.
"I was eating breakfast." Rick's face had that stubborn kind of look a little boy might take on.
Rita shook her head with impatience. Her coiffed hair barely moved above her pearl earrings. "Really, Ticky, you're a professional. You can't just turn your phone off."
Jerry Guttmacher had trouble keeping a straight face.
"You could have called the main number at the office. It picks up twenty-four-seven."
"What, and get that awful Irene woman or an answering service? No, thank you."
"Hey, Irene's been working for Dad and me for twenty-five years."
Jerry contorted himself to suppress a snort of laughter.
"Yes, but she's not you, Ticky. What I need is my gorgeous plumber, not his secretary."
Rick flushed beet red. Jerry was going to ride him mercilessly. "Dispatcher. That's what she – "
"Yes, yes, Ticky, job titles don't really matter at this point, do they?"
"Irene knows how to get hold of me in an emergency."
"Well I'll just have to learn her secret, won't I?" Rita McKee smiled in a way calculated to be endearing. At least she avoided batting her eyelashes.
"Join us for coffee?" Jerry volunteered, with a courtesy just covering his glee.
"No thanks, Jerome. I'm in a bit of a hurry. Now, Ticky, I just got a call from the Takács family, and there's a problem with…"
"You got a call from who?"
"The people renting the Kohler estate. Cedarcrest. Zoltan and Magda Takács." Rita spoke as if explaining an elementary lesson to a sulky child.
"And what do they want?"
"There's a problem with the hot water. It's not working, and they said the strangest thing – the hot water heater is missing, Ticky. What on earth does that mean?"
Rick stared at the remains of his breakfast. This was way too entertaining for Jerry, and probably for the rest of the early morning diner crowd, too. He could sit there and try to explain the difficulties of a forty-year-old hot water system to this woman, or he could just get out to Cedarcrest and fix the damn thing. And then it would be over and done with, at least.
"It means they don't understand the how it works, Rita. I told you that setup was old and needed help. Whoever the Kohlers hired to close the place down probably did a lousy job."
"Well it doesn't matter now. I just need you to go out there and fix it."
"It might cost them or the Kohlers some real money this time," he warned.
Rita waved this objection away like a gnat. "I'm sure you'll be fair, Ticky."
"All right. I'll go on out. After I finish my coffee."
Rita smiled and checked her tiny, stylish watch. "Wonderful. Thank you, dear. Now I've got an appointment. See you later."
And she was gone, leaving a hint of floral scent, and a memory of muted plaid.
Jerry waited until Rita was on her way out the diner's aluminum door. "Ticky?"
Rick glowered. "I didn't ask her to call me that."
"Ticky?" Jerry just about cackled.
"Oh, shut up." Rick grumbled. He rose, dropping more money on the table than he should have.
"You've got to be kidding me, Rico. Ticky? Jeez, that's awful." The grin on Jerry's face had to be seen to be believed.
Rick knew it would be a long time until he'd be allowed to forget.
While waiting at the stoplight at East Union and Briar, Rick called into the office to Irene to let her know where he was going.
"I can't believe the nerve of that woman," Irene fumed back at him over the connection. "She just could have called me. I'd have taken care of it."
"Okay, Irene. It's done now. I'm just letting you know."
"Your father hired me to help make sure this business ran smoothly," she began.
"I know. And you do it like an expert," Rick soothed. "Don't worry. I think I know what the problem is. It shouldn't set the schedule back too much."
"You must set quite a store by that woman, that's all I can say."
"Well, she promised to pay what we charge."
That ended the conversation, as the light changed.
As he drove out to Cedarcrest on the North Shore Road, Rick wondered if it wouldn't be wise to invent an excuse to get out of town and away from Rita McKee. It would just be for a day, maybe two, if he could manage it. He didn't care that he'd just taken Memorial Day off. He could go to Milwaukee, try to find a replacement for Marshall.
Rick had discovered Marshall on an ordinary, normal trip down to Milwaukee to purchase pipes, parts, and tools over a decade ago. It had been February, and business was slow. Rick remembered sitting in a coffee shop, furtively looking at the personals section of the Journal Sentinel.
"Massage Therapy for Men," the advertisement had run. "Experience the attention and care of a masseur who will cater to your every need." A telephone number completed the sales pitch.
Rick still had trouble believing that he'd made that call, especially after chickening out on so many other opportunities. Maybe he was impelled by years of loneliness and isolation. Maybe it was the bleak late winter weather.But he had called, trembling fingers and all, and then astonished himself still more by making an appointment.
Marshall turned out to be a perfectly harmless and highly skilled masseur. And with the right requests made and additional fees paid, Marshall performed other such services as a lonely and long-neglected man might require. Rick's first visit was indeed memorable.
"My God, darling, how long has it been?" Marshall asked as he expertly cleaned them both up. Rick's booking had run considerably over time.
"A few years," Rick remembered replying. He'd been too embarrassed to tell this attentive and kind individual it had been far longer than that. Rick had experienced a number of furtive encounters in college, and a few more after graduation. All had been conducted in bar restrooms or highway rest areas as far from Eagle Lake as he could manage. After each one, he felt dirty and humiliated; these episodes brought back dark memories and left him worse off than before.
Marshall had made him feel things he didn't even know how to describe. For the first time in such a long, long time, Rick had felt different: unashamed, for once; contented. Maybe even desirable.
"Well, let me tell you as a health professional, it's not good for a man to go without for such a long time."
"I'll try to come back." In fact, Rick began plotting excuses to return to Milwaukee at the earliest opportunity.
"Good. I won't be able to contain myself until you do."
And Rick had gone back. At least three times, Rick had found some pretext or other to make a journey to Milwaukee. Until the year Marshall stopped replying to emails. He stopped answering his phone. Discreet attempts to track the man proved fruitless.
Once again, solitude and emptiness had closed in.
He returned to a world of passing fancies, stolen glances and internet sites which made impossible demands.
Now, a few years on, Rick doubted anyone could replace the masseur who had revealed a wholly other possible world, who had shown Rick how to dream about things which might have been had he been born in a different place or to different parents. Or if he weren't such a damn coward.
But he was who he was, and he just had to make the best of it. Pity about having to shut down part of himself, but that was that.
As Rick turned the old van into the driveway out at the Kohler summer lodge, he noticed the trees and brush had been trimmed back, and the verge was neatly mowed. Rita must have someone besides himself wrapped around her finger. Ruefully, Rick wondered if some other guy in town had been given an abominable pet name, too.
He wheeled around the circular drive, passed a row of open French windows, and parked by the kitchen door as before. He walked up to the entrance, but this time, it was open. Only a flimsy screen door separated him from the interior of the house. He knocked firmly on the door frame and waited. The sound of a piano being played somewhere further inside wafted to his ears.
Rick knocked again, more loudly. "Hello?" he called out.
Still nothing but the distant sounds of the keyboard. Something classical, he could tell.
He was about to knock again, when a figure appeared on the other side of the screen. It was a girl, somewhere in her teens. Long black hair framed a face with a straight nose and serious expression.
"Are you the plumber?" she asked from the other side of the screen.
"I'm here about the hot water. Can I come in?"
"Sure." She moved to unlatch the door.
Rick wiped his feet on the mat and the girl watched as he carried his tools to the basement steps. The light was already on.
He descended the stairs. About halfway down, he heard the sounds of footsteps behind him. Rick turned. The girl was following him.
"You don't have to come down. I know where the problem is."
"I don't." She blinked.
"You looked for it?"
"I know what a hot water heater is, and how to re-light one, but it wasn't in the laundry room or the furnace room."
Now it was Rick's turn to blink. Since when did wealthy summer kids know about stuff like that?
"This system’s different." He resumed his march to the furnace room. Strangely, with the lights on and accompanied by this new apparition, the ghosts of Cedarcrest that haunted him remained quiescent.
Rick switched on the light in the furnace room and crossed to the old burner.
Swiftly, he unscrewed the cover and lifted it off. He reached into his toolbox and retrieved a small flashlight. A quick inspection under its brilliant beam revealed the problem: the old flutter valve was stuck. An easy fix. He'd be out of Cedarcrest in a hurry.
Rick turned to get solvent to clean the valve, and lubricant to make it move smoothly. He just avoided bumping heads with the girl.
"Whoa! Jeez, you startled me. What the heck were you doing?"
"I'm sorry," the girl replied. It was uncertain if she meant it. "I just wanted to see what you were doing. And why are you looking at the furnace?"
He examined her face – serious, eyes bright, focused, not an ounce of pretense. "What's your name?"
"Marta." She brushed a stray lock of hair away from her face. "What's yours?"
"I'm Rick. Nice meeting you, Marta." Awkwardly, he stuck out his hand.
The girl took it, and with a firm grip, shook hands.
"You like mechanical stuff?"
She nodded. "Yeah. I think it's cool."
"Cool, huh? Well, this is a furnace."
"Yeah, so what's up with that?"
"Look up."Rick pointed to a large diameter tin pipe descending from the ceiling of the dusty enclosure.
Attentive eyes searched for clues to the hot water mystery.
"That's the insulator jacket. This is an older type of whole-house system. This furnace takes cold water, passes it through a heating coil in the burner, gets it all nice and hot, and then sends that hot water all over the house to the baseboard heating units. The cold water feed comes in at the top, and the hot water gets sent out right beside it. See there?" He pointed his light to a spot inside the old boiler to indicate.
"I get that. But what – "
"Hang on a second. Someone got the bright idea that if heating up all that water to keep the house warm on a cold morning worked so well, why not provide hot water for the house the same way?"
Rick shifted the flashlight beam a bit to the left.
"See that? It's a parallel cold water feed. There's a second heating coil in the boiler, and another hot water main leading out, too. When you want to wash dishes or take a shower, a pressure valve on the hot water pipe tells the furnace there's demand. The furnace switches on, and heats all the hot water you could possibly want. No hot water tank to run out, no pilot to keep lit, none of that."
"Oh. Oh, I get it. And in a big house like this, that might be a good idea. Nobody ever has a cold shower."
"Right." Rick smiled.
"But why doesn't everyone do it this way?"
"Well, for one thing, the system has drawbacks. If your water is pretty hard, the coils in the burner will get clogged with minerals, or the pipes wear out."
"That's not what happened here, though."
"No: if it had, we'd have a flood right now."
"So, what's the problem?"
Rick moved the flashlight beam again. "I think there's a problem with this little valve here. It's actually an air intake valve, and things like these often get rusty or dirty on old oil burners like this one. Especially if you don't maintain them."
The girl peered closer to get a better look.
"If this doesn't flutter, the furnace doesn't get enough air, and won't light," Rick continued. "In fact, we're lucky. Sometimes, it lights but the fuel only burns partially, and then everything gets gummed up with oily exhaust."
"Oh. That makes sense."
Rick turned. "Would you mind looking in my toolkit and handing me the long-handled flathead screwdriver and that blue metal tube there?"
His new assistant quickly located the items and handed them over.
"Thanks. Now look."Rick reached in, and tapped the offending bit of metal with the tip of his screwdriver. It moved, grudgingly. "See what I mean? It's probably rusted or clogged."
He prodded the valve again. Then he rose to his feet and straightened up.
"Hey wait, aren't you going to do something about it?"
Rick grinned. "Sure. But not before I shut off the electrical circuit to the furnace."
There was a momentary pause, and then the girl's face registered understanding. "Right. Of course. You don't want any chance of the furnace firing off while you're working on it."
"No. Especially not while I'm working with solvents and stuff like that. Sparks can do nasty things."
The actual cleaning was somewhat anticlimactic. Marta passed along cleaning solvent, rags and cotton swabs, and watched intently. Rick felt a little like a surgeon doing a routine procedure. Soon, the valve behaved normally once again, and with electricity restored to the circuit, the furnace fired right up with a muted roar.
"There now. It's not perfect, but that will probably hold together for the summer." Rick found he'd actually enjoyed the morning detour to Cedarcrest. "I suppose I should ask your mom or dad about where to send the bill."
Marta looked a little sheepish. "Okay. Mom's around, someplace. But don't tell her I was down here."
"Sorry. I don't understand."
"Mom hates that I like machines and stuff. I'm supposed to be an artist." This was spoken with all the sincerity and sarcasm of an adolescent.
"Don't like painting?"
"Not that kind of artist. A musician. I play the clarinet."
"Okay," Rick said, ascending the stairs. Notes from a piano made themselves heard again. "So that's obviously not you on the piano."
"Obviously. That's my brother, Joey, practicing."
Rick stopped and turned when he emerged from the stairwell into the kitchen. "So where will I find your mother?"
Marta shrugged. "Maybe out on the lawn by the lake? I think she was having coffee there, before."
"Thanks. I'll go looking for her. Nice to meet you, Marta."
"Yeah. Same here. Thanks for showing me the furnace. And for not ratting me out to Mom."
Rick grinned. "No problem."
He headed out the kitchen door to walk around the west end of the house to the wide lawn which rolled down from the terrace to the lake. He didn't want to wander around inside the grand house uninvited. Coming around the corner, he spotted a female figure sitting in a lawn chair, reading a book in the middle of the newly mown expanse of green. The lake sparkled and glittered in the morning sun beyond. A mug balanced precariously on the chair arm.
Rick walked over. "Hello," he offered a greeting when he came within earshot. Again, the voice of the piano floated out from the house.
Rita's tenant looked up from her book. Dark hair, salted with grey, pulled back into a severe bun imparted an imperious air. "Yes? Who are you?" A cocked eyebrow in a round face accentuated the question.
"Rick Ernst. Rita McKee sent me out about the hot water."
"Ah, yes." The woman rose. "Do you know where to find the problem?" She spoke with a definite accent. Eastern European, by the sound.
"I took care of it already. You should have plenty of hot water now."
The woman's dark eyes flashed indignantly as she stood. "How did you get in?"
"Your daughter, Marta, met me at the kitchen door."
"I see." The woman's lips pressed together in thin line. "And the problem is fixed?"
"For now. I told Rita that the whole system needs some work." He figured a more technical explanation would go unappreciated.
Narrowed eyes met his for a moment. "How much will you charge for this good-enough-for-now repair?"
"I can charge Rita, and she'll put the charge on your final statement. She does that with most of her rental customers. Otherwise, you could just pay me now."
"I think I prefer to pay you now. Again, how much?"
"Maybe ten dollars," Rick shrugged. "It was pretty minor."
His host's face cleared. "Ten dollars?"
"Well, I've got to be able to cover the cost of gas and driving."
"Yes, of course. And I am Magda. Magda Takács." It sounded like 'toe-catch,' only not.
"Rick Ernst." They shook hands.
"Come. Come with me into the house, Rick Ernst." Magda Takács actually rolled the 'R' in his first name slightly.
He trailed her solidly built form as she bustled up the lawn to the house. She entered the house through the open French doors on the terrace. Rick followed, but at a distance. Magda Takács was speedier than she appeared. Tentatively, he stepped inside, entering a wide, light filled living area. Windows lined both sides of the broad room. He could see his truck parked in the drive through the glass on the far side of the room. To the right, in a sunny corner, stood a grand piano; a boy with sandy hair glowered at the keyboard, head down.
And beside the boy stood a slight figure. He noticed the vivid blue cast on the man's right forearm first.It blazed in bright contrast to grey sweatpants and a white t-shirt. Rick's eyes took in caramel skin and jet black hair, a graceful curve of the neck. The man looked up from his pupil. One eyebrow arched high in an unasked question; yet lively, dark eyes and a pleasant smile greeted Rick. For just a moment, the lovely heat of sweet summer blew over Rick's heart. In an instant, a bright green yearning ache sprouted and blossomed. He forgot about his schedule and his workload and everything else.
But behind the warmth was a cold wind blowing through his brain. This guy couldn’t ever be interested in you. Why would he be? Look at yourself: you're an ugly, small-town, middle aged piece of trash waiting for the landfill. Can't even cut the cord with your father…
"There you are, Rick Ernst." Magda Takács reappeared from a doorway, carrying a large floral patterned handbag. She dug deep into the interior, and extracted a bill. "You will send me a receipt."
He returned to the immediate. "What? Oh. Sure. A receipt. I can write one in the truck."
"Good. I will go with you."
A last glance to his right: the piano instructor was pointing something out to the boy. Rick wanted to linger, but knew that would hurt too much.
He could lose his mind and his heart doing that, pining after an impossibility. Perhaps a trip to Milwaukee would be smarter.
I gratefully acknowledge the help of @AC Benus and @Carlos Hazday in making this a better story than it started out to be. If you have thoughts, observations or comments to leave, that would be wonderful.