SELF-MAINTENANCE by John Chrostek

I live at the bottom of an old apartment tower and my tub won’t stop filling up with water. The building, weary from a century of American life, funnels its sewage down through my unit’s pipes until it all gets stuck up tight and rises with a fury, bubbling and nasty from the drain. For days, my every waking moment has been spent dumping bucket after bucket of the hot, dim water down the toilet and calling out for help. The calling out is pointless, of course, for what raw marrow remains of my voice gets trapped in my apartment, chipping at the paint on the walls, reaching no one. I know I would be furious—a half-starved monkey abandoned in a foreclosed amusement park—if I wasn’t sure deep down that I deserved this.

Outside my bedroom window (left open day and night to minimize the build-up of moisture,) my unremarkable residential street has been overrun with a parade of screamers, all guttural grunts and challenges to fight discomforted passersby. At first the chaos left me unsettled, but as time passed and I dumped the water time and again, as I slept in fitful shifts on the cold linoleum tiling. Their thick-tongued cries sounded less like invading hellspawn and more like troubled family. I now love my feral kin as they howl, piss and rummage through the waste of the decadent, as they rage against society and the water rising quickly from the tub. I sing their praises as they set about their holy work and I mine, drawing strength from solidarity.

One downside: there has been little time to eat. If I leave the tub unattended for an hour, the water recognizes my absence and rises twice as quickly. Fine, I think, for what is the body but water? I remind myself of the religious function of fasting; how it forges impeccable resolve within a human soul committed to its lessons. I admit, I am unsure which god can be accredited for flushing my cell phone with the bath water, for the dogged persistence of the cup to runneth over, but there is meaning in this for me, a message I must decode. Everything is water. Life is a cycle. A buried sin grows toxic flowers. I assure you, gods, I am listening!

At night, I see-dream a polar bear squatting on a Caribbean coastline. His fur is matted with oily refuse and he is singing in a language I do not know. I am holding two halves of a coconut filled with milky juice topped with cherry blossoms. I hand the bear a juice and motion for him to drink it. His eyes sparkle with bright pain. The world may be shrinking, but all the good is gathering, I offer. No, he replies, there are just less good things. We drink our coconuts in brotherhood as the black tide comes rolling in.

This juice tastes like shit, I think to myself, until I wake up and realize that the tub is flooding again. I rise, my pajama onesie soaked with backwash, and get to work. My back is sore and my senses are foggy and muted, but my muscles have learned their labor well these past few days. Twenty-seven flushes and at last the water is back below the rim, but the floor is drenched and so am I. This calls for towels.

The door to the bathroom will not open. It has no lock, nothing to block it shut. It must be swollen from the water, I realize, and start to laugh. I tug and jiggle the doorknob, but the door will not open and I laugh a little harder. I slam my hands into the door, loose palm, closed fist, elbows and shin and forehead but the damn thing doesn’t budge. I’m not laughing but I hear my body laughing wild and loud, laughing like blood and I couldn’t stop it if I tried.

Faintly from the other side I hear the glimmering jingle of keys and a shiver plays on my neck. A loud knock on the hallway door, footsteps and a voice, “Hello? Is anyone in here?” Another knock. “There’ve been several noise complaints, reports of howling?” 

I cry out for help, slamming myself into the bathroom door.

“Alright, I’m coming in.” The sound of the keys again. The front door opens. “Oh, my goodness there’s water everywhere!”

“Hello! I’m in here! Get me out!” I beg, weeping from relief. I explain the situation with the bathroom door and the tub and the days of interminable hardship and panic through the wood of the door.

“I see. We should be able to help you out shortly. Have you filled out a work order yet by any chance?”

I explain the fate of my phone, the days of panicked cries for help with colorful yet restrained poetic language.

“Uh-huh. Well, I’ll place a call with our plumber, we should have someone out here in a day or two. Until then, do you have a hairdryer or space heater you could use to dry out the space a bit?”

No.

“Okay. Well stay put, help is on the way. We can discuss the cost of damages once this has all gotten settled, all right?”

Outside, the screamers scream in concentrated numbers. The property manager stomps over to the open window facing out into the street. There seems to be a disagreement between the screamers growing in intensity.

“Get a job, filthy ingrates!” He yells as he struggles to close the windowpane. He calls back to me, his voice raised, “Next time you get locked in the bathroom, be sure to keep these closed. Don’t want a security issue!”

A shout. Glass breaking in the other room. I hear the manager stagger back from the window towards my bathroom door. I ask what happened, what that noise was, why the screamers now laugh with joy. 

“Help is coming! Stay put!” 

The front door opens and shuts with alarming speed. I press my hands to the door and feel heat from the other side. I am numb.

Outside, the screamers cheer, “Shows that asshole! Throw another one!”

A pause. Glass, heat, a sound like a thunderbolt five miles away, the piercing ring of the fire alarm from the kitchen. Above me, the frantic footsteps of evacuation. I take a step back from the door and slip, falling backwards onto the tile, by sheer luck avoiding hitting my head on the edge of the toilet. Thud. Terrible pain in my lower back as it strikes the floor, spasming from repetition, neglect and repetition.

I lie there, unable to move. The screamers sing a drinking song as tenants flood into the street. Babies cry, dogs yelp and bark, frantic from the cacophony. I listen for the sounds of footsteps coming my way, for signs of help, but every human sound seems distant. 

The bathroom window! With great effort, I pull myself up off the floor. If I can get myself up on the rim of the tub, I can climb through the slim bathroom window, I can—

The bars. The bars on the bathroom window.

“Sure,” I nod and reply. I lie back down on the tile. It hurt to sit up anyway. I take stock of the situation, trying my best to think things through. Everything is water. My clothes are drenched. If the smoke starts entering the room, it’s best to be down on the floor with the oxygen. I should be safe until the firefighters arrive. The property manager will tell them just where to find me. 

Life is a cycle. The fire’s heat will dry out the bathroom door, enough to get it open. If I conserve my strength, I might be able to make it out. Is this the lesson I’m meant to learn, that a bad situation always leads to good in time? I think of my hard-earned wisdom, the bliss of a potential escape, the new life awaiting me on the other side of cleansing fire. After all, how did I end up here? 

A buried sin grows toxic flowers. You tricky gods. What sick root compelled me, hardship after hardship, to stay? All your dramatics, all your chaos, your unending parade of thwarted joys and heartbreaks, the whole blue pitter bill of the earth just to show me how powerful I really am! I am in your debt; I am your thankful servant and faithful pupil till the end! There is nothing to fear anymore. Nothing to fight. This is the ultimate freedom, the total liberation of the spirit!

I hear a noise like copper groaning from below, a churn and bubbles, and all at once black water starts flowing from the tub, pooling over the porcelain canyon and flooding all around me as the crystal bathroom doorknob shines with the light of the fire. Distantly, my body again begins to laugh.


John Chrostek makes poetry, prose and plays, currently laid off from his job selling books at Powell's City of Books in Portland, OR. His recent work can be found in publications like HAD, River Heron Review, Deep Overstock and more. Find him on twitter at @yoncrowstack.

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

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