The Boiler Man
by Carmen Firan
In buildings like this, boiler men are indispensable. Especially during winter when the radiators clog, filters need to be changed, and pipes crack just when you need them most, on a frosty weekend. The residents at 89-13 62 Avenue were lucky. The super was also a boiler man, a member of a profession learned and practiced diligently in Eastern Europe where everything’s out of order or out of place.
Maybe the term “plumber” is more precise, but in his native country his specialty had been radiators. Back during the communist era, the boiler man had an ace up his sleeve since rumors had it that the secret police kept track of suspects by planting microphones in the radiators of suspicious tenants. He had to be trusted —not just skilled—to convince people that he didn’t work for the police.
Dick, who had won the green-card lottery, took his wife and daughter by the hand and didn’t stop until they reached Sunnyside, Queens. There, in only two weeks, he found this job as a “super” —the guy who does everything.
“I don’t believe in lotteries and that stuff about luck. I played on a whim to prove to myself that I couldn’t win. Everything I ever got in my life was through hard work. Nothing ever fell into my lap. This time, God knows, the devil stuck his nose into it. I didn’t really want to move to America, but once I got the visa, I figured, why not go and see how they live over there.” That’s what he confessed every chance he could, as he caressed a bushy moustache he thought boosted his sex appeal. “But I don’t like it here. I miss my little house and the vines and fruit trees in the courtyard, I miss my drinking friends and life over there, poor, sure, but happy. I worked, I didn’t work, something came up and I lived well, whatever. If it wasn’t for my wife, who kept bugging me about my daughter’s future and all that stuff, I would never have left everything behind.”
Dick looked like he could lift three buildings at once. He wore large denim overalls without a shirt, an outfit that showed off his muscular arms and hairy chest. His “super’s office” was in the building’s basement, surrounded by boilers, air conditioners, tool sheds, old furniture, torn mattresses, all kinds of useless items, and garbage bags. Basically, Dick ruled an underground empire.
At night, when the garbage was taken out in the well-to-do neighborhoods of Queens, Dick hit the streets in his vintage car, packed it with whatever could be reused, and unloaded his loot in the basement. He managed to stack up a serious collection of TV sets, microwave ovens, tape recorders, chairs, vacuum cleaners, rugs, outdated computers, and whatever else one might need to outfit a brand-new home. Some were in great shape; others he fixed and sold for nothing to newly arrived immigrants who’d ended up in Sunnyside. “I’m doing a good deed,” he’d explain defensively, “this is what I learned at home. Take from the rich, and give to the poor. What I get out of it isn’t important. It’s more of a communal gesture, since everybody here is so into the collective spirit.”
Dick had won over all the residents in the building he administered quite with competently. He carried old ladies’ grocery bags to the elevator, walked dogs, babysat for young families, tended the lawn outside the building, and, of course, replaced pipes and filters, unclogged toilets, and, since this was the country of technology, fixed computers, too. He couldn’t really be called industrious, but he was smart, skilled. He never refused a tip but didn’t rip anyone off, either.
This new world didn’t scare him anymore. He’d found out he could get what he wanted even without speaking the language because Sunnyside was populated by his countrymen. The stores, restaurants, pastry shops, medical offices, churches, and newspapers in his native tongue tempered his longing for the mother country. Occasionally the ghetto bothered him, and he’d snap with superiority:
“You immigrate to get rid of these folks and end up living with them. It’s the same ethnic borsh, only thicker.”
Despite rebuffs, he was capable of shedding tears over a native folk song heard in bodegas where people argued for the democratization of the old country, which some denigrated, some regretted, though none would ever admit that they felt like foreigners in both places. It was an unspoken dilemma they would be buried with.
“Well, they have everything here, except tomatoes like the ones back home,” Dick sighed over a glass of vodka, which was emptied more and more often and earlier and earlier in the day.
Dick was a romantic. A giant with delicate features, he was sensitive to miniatures. He loved small animals; maybe that’s why the mice and bugs that haunted his “super’s office” in the basement didn’t faze him. He didn’t protest the rabbit his daughter brought home, the rabbit which they kept in the bathroom; he loved the flashy fish swimming in an improvised bowl, the jar for pickles that they took out to the balcony in summer. He loved etchings and had even tried to find work as a house painter. With or without his clients’ consent, at the end of a job he painted thin stripes and floral motifs that set off the walls from the ceiling, a delicate water lily around the chandelier or colorful birds above the kitchen window.
“We have to embellish our life,” was his motto, which he practiced how he knew best.
His large hands, accustomed to pipes and hardware, could be gentle and soothing. He caressed animals, tended flowers, and cried during love scenes. Despite the dirt under his nails, and his T-shirts soaked with sweat at the chest and underarms, he wasn’t a repulsive boiler man. You noticed his virility and not his smell, his vigor and not the clothes worn out from crawling underneath sinks and toilets. He loved his wife and adored his daughter, whose every whim he accepted. Provided she was good in school and behaved.
“Life is a simple thing. I don’t believe in chance. Everything fits together, and as long as you act with common sense, there are no great surprises. If you can avoid abuse and excess, life is decent, the way it’s supposed to be. I’m not an intellectual but I feel certain things, I don’t know how. My grandfather was illiterate, but he knew everything. He died in peace one afternoon, after he’d washed and shaved, called grandmother to his side, held her hand, and told her that his time had come. He closed his eyes and a few minutes later he was gone. Light, beautiful, serene. Now people die with violence, death isn’t liberation any more, but a condemnation, a humiliation.”
Dick hadn’t read one book after graduating from vocational school, a two-year program where he learned all about the heating profession. He only watched movies and sometimes leafed through newspapers. Still, nature had given him poise that could pass as wisdom, perhaps inherited from his grandfather. He had some odd habits too, which could make him an interesting drinking partner.
In the evening, a few friends he’d made in the building descended to the basement, where he had improvised a warm, bar-like atmosphere that resembled his home back home. He’d brought in a plastic garden table from the street and a few odd chairs, even a sun umbrella that he stuck proudly through the hole in the center. Next to it he kept a cooler filled with beer and vodka. He and his companions played folk music and debated the state of the world. One neighbor came from his hometown. They’d been neighbors even back then and left the country just a few months’ apart. It’s a small world, but even smaller in Queens.
“Guys, I don’t know why, but since I left the old country, I’ve been plagued by memories. I remember everything, you know, everything! Early childhood, my birth, even before it.”
The boiler man amazed them with his stories, which included some disturbing details, like remembering his own birth.
“No kidding,” Dick would tell them, his eyes blurred by the power of memory. “I witnessed my own birth.”
At first they didn’t take him too seriously, but in time Dick won them over, and then they listened with baited breath. Each time, they asked him to tell them more stories about being born. They emptied one glass after another not fully believing what they heard but were moved by such an odd experience.
“Actually I remember details from before I was born, from the time I swam packed in my mother’s belly. You don’t have much space to move around in there, and your movements are restricted. The last stages of the pregnancy are the worst. Moving gets more and more difficult. You want to turn but can’t, you kick with your feet and hands but nothing happens. I remember that during the last weeks I wanted more than anything to do a somersault. A few times I rebelled out, I’d grown too much, and I think I kicked my mother too hard because I immediately felt her hands grabbing my heels to calm me down. I recognized her palms instinctively. They caressed me even when I hit her with rage. I wasn’t nervous or restless, I had no reason to be, it’s warm in there and you don’t lack for anything.”
“Didn’t you choke?” Dick heard a puzzled voice.
“How could you choke?! I never breathed with more ease in my life. Everything’s natural and clean, you wish you breathed air like that all the time! The temperature is constant, same with the humidity, everything’s constant, know what I mean? Just the way it has to be, just as much as it should be. Nothing unpredictable or uncomfortable. You’re always satisfied. You’re never hungry or thirsty, and if you need food all you have to do is think about it and you’re immediately fed with delicacies. You want fish, you can be sure that soon your mother will crave just that, and, because a pregnant woman is always granted her wish, she’ll get fish, and you’ll extract its very essence, the reason why you want to eat fish in the first place. And even if she doesn’t eat fish when you crave it, you end up eating the essence of fish, because you extract from her whatever the fish contains. Get it? I’m trying to make everything simple, but I’d like you to understand how it works. You suck in everything you need from her and the poor mother knows it. She loses iron, even calcium. Some even lose their hair or teeth, their nails turn white, their faces have spots and they’re always worn out. Whoever says that a pregnancy invigorates a woman doesn’t know what they’re talking about. It drains her but you couldn’t live better anywhere else. In there I was happy. After I got out, I never felt as protected. It’s a divine harmony that’s hard to define because we never experience it in real life. My friends, we are born happy. Whatever happens afterwards, God knows!”
Sometimes he’d be paged for an emergency. A flood, a pipe, an anxious old woman whose vacuum cleaner wasn’t working. Dick would run there right away, fix whatever needed to be fixed, and come back to the basement where his friends waited for him, enveloped in cigar smoke. He came back with hands even dirtier, sweat dripping down his forehead. He’d curse, gulp a glass of vodka that would ruffle his moustache, knock his fist against the table, and continue his stories.
“What bothered me there, though, was that I had to keep my eyes closed. Strangely enough, I could still see. I don’t know what it feels like to be in other women’s bellies, but in my mother’s womb I saw an extraordinary world. But I never felt any smell or saw any color. Unfortunately I don’t know anybody who can confirm my impressions or exchange opinions. I haven’t met anybody who was aware of his fetal life or who witnessed his birth. I have a memory, some say, ancient, abnormally large and old. It’s possible. And since I moved to Queens it expands every day. Although I believe that memory is infinite. But people don’t try to remember that far back, or maybe they can’t imagine that it’s possible to remember the time before your birth, not to mention the birth itself, which seems so natural, since everyone was present at one’s birth, right? If you remember yourself when you were five, why not remember the five seconds after you came into this world? Isn’t that the same? The same life?”
His drinking friends would nod in agreement. For the moment, the boiler man’s point of view made perfect sense.
“I saw many things in my life, but nothing could top the world in my mother’s belly. Entire cities, archipelagoes made of jelly tubes, galleries of pipes stretching like nerves along fluid walls, a complicated architecture of channels, mazes, tunnels and grottos, abysses, a sky of stars, perfect shapes swimming through a delicate spider web, everything murky, like a half-done drawing, like a miniature map of the universe. I could hear my heart beating in the middle of the universe, and I kept floating like an astronaut caught in those transparent laces enveloping me, and rocked me gently like a mild summer breeze. Even stranger, I recognized all these as if I’d seen them before, I behaved as if I had been in my mother’s belly before, as if I had memories from another pregnancy. I wonder if I was born more than once.”
At this point his audience usually lost patience. Some mumbled in protest that they were being dragged into surreal territory, others looked at Dick with pity, a grown up man, a giant, raving and ranting, but they were all curious to hear the conclusion. Then Dick swallowed another glass of vodka, wiped his moustache with the back of a hand covered with brownish creases, and lowered his voice, while his eyes sparkled conspiratorially.
“There’s no pleasure in being born. First of all, it’s a long, painful, dangerous process. You pass from that perfect harmony to an unimaginable convulsion, you struggle, you push with your head first, you kick your legs, desperate to get out, nobody knows why, because it was so cozy in there! But at some point you’re not allowed to stay inside any longer, you have to leave! The worst is that you feel your own mother straining against you, as if she wanted to get rid of you. At first you lose your balance, you slip, and no matter how much you wrestle, the head drags you down, it suddenly becomes very heavy, as if filled with lead, your ears pop and stress increases. Your head enters a dark tunnel. This is the most difficult and frightening part of the process. The tunnel of darkness.”
“I’ve heard that story about the tunnel before,” one of the neighbors told Dick, “but it happens when you die, not when…” He didn’t dare say more. The word birth had already sent shivers down his spine.
“When you die, it’s a tunnel of light,” another interfered, “and in this one it’s dark.”
“Pitch dark,” Dick confirmed. “The first sensation is terrible. You choke, you drown, your hair gets caught in all kinds of roots, I heard something rumbling like a volcano ready to erupt. I pushed as hard as I could, my neck was stiff, and I thought I’d be trapped inside forever. One of my shoulders was stiff from all that effort. I suffered from pains in my left shoulder until I was 5 because of my passage through that thin, black, cold, damp tunnel. Then I felt the first smells, just as unpleasant as the sounds that were waiting for me once I was pulled outside. Because the truth is that you can’t make it by yourself, eventually you are pulled outside by others. I coughed and I began to sob. They grabbed me, wiped me dry of the lava, and undid the roots wrapped around me, irritating my skin. I was dying of cold and I’d turned green from all the effort and shouting. I opened my eyes but saw nothing. I heard strange, metallic, piercing screams around me. Suddenly, I felt hungry but this time no essence satiated me. I’d be administered hundreds of gallons of milk until I was fed up with it. They wrapped me, covered me, and laid me on a bed. I was alone. In my mother’s belly I’d also been alone, but here, outside, it was a different way of being alone. Dry. Cold. Deafening. I had only known happy loneliness until then. Now a desperate loneliness began, and I think that’s when I was scared for the first time. I understood what it means to be alone. To waver between happiness and despair. To be expelled from the world. To see, to hear, to feel, and not to be understood.”
The neighbors were already sad; they drank out of spite and experienced everything as if they’d just been born themselves.
“Look, I remember the first night of loneliness as if it were now. They put me in a bed face up. From there, through the dark window, I saw the moon for the first time. You will ask me how I knew it was the moon. I knew. I’d seen it before. Here, how? Hell knows! And, all of a sudden…”
Dick’s phone rang violently. Mrs. Simpson from the 9th floor had an emergency. Her toilet was clogged and she had guests in half an hour. The boiler man got up at once, duty came before everything else. He left his audience with the story unfinished, grabbed his toolbox and a few minutes later knocked on Mrs. Simpson’s door. She was waiting for him eagerly.
“Dick, you’re a miracle. What would I do without you?! God sent you to us!”
Carmen Firan, born in Romania, is a poet, a fiction and play writer, and a journalist. She has published fifteen books of poetry, novels, essays and short stories. Her writings appear in translation in many literary magazines and in various anthologies in France, Israel, Sweden, Germany, Ireland, Poland, Canada, UK and the U.S. She lives in New York. Her recent books and publications in the United States of America include: Inferno, novella, (Spuyten Duyvil Press), Rock and Dew, (Sheep Meadow Press), Words and Flesh, (Talisman Publishers), The Second Life (Columbia University Press), The Farce, (Spuyten Duyvil Press), In The Most Beautiful Life, (Umbrage Editions), The First Moment After Death (Writers Club Press). She is a member of PEN American Center and the Poetry Society of America and serves on the editorial boards of the international magazines Lettre Internationale (Paris-Bucharest) and Interpoezia (New York). She is the co-editor of Naming the Nameless (An Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry), Stranger at Home, Poetry with an Accent, Numina Press, and Born in Utopia (An Anthology of Romanian Modern and Contemporary Poetry), Talisman Publishers. www.carmenfiran.com