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The Graceful Plumber
by Suzi Vitello

I married Edward because his parents loved me and mine had split up. I married Edward because he trusted gravity. I married Edward because I worked in a hospital where young women were dying of malignancies and where babies blew out birthday candles from prisons of tubes and wires, never having felt sky on their faces. But mostly, I married Edward because I wanted to be him.

Long Lake, New York, in the Adirondacks, is as cold a place anyone bordering on no sense would ever want to winter camp. No matter how many pairs of long johns from L. L. Bean you wear, or how many quilt-lined flannel shirts, or how good your sleeping bag, your nose is always going to feel like ice in the morning. Your ankles are always going to shatter if you step off a fallen tree limb too hard.

Edward and I are in a meadow, eating post-season apples. Cortland apples, the best upstate has to offer. The apples are crisp and tart as the air around us. Brittle leaves cling to trees along the edges of the meadow, forgotten confetti in the every year parade. Edward, his eyes crinkled from squinting and smiling, takes bites from his apple without checking for brown spots. Edward's untrimmed mustache holds drops of apple juice. All around us are skinny cores, evidence of our greed. From the tops of the trees, the cores might seem as randomly scattered as cancer cells in stage four melanoma. No end, no beginning. It can happen like that. The randomness. The lottery. The big joke on you: the earth you thought would hold you forever, suddenly split open, revealing, finally, the chaos festering beneath. It can happen so fast. No sky on your face.

"Do you want to get married?" I asked him.


The wedding: a big Polish, 'till-death-do-us-part affair. The Jimmy Nedielski band, best Polka band out of black dirt country--my home town, Florida, New York. Piroghi, rosy-cheeked flower girls named Nettie, Bonnie and Maria. Homemade gifts of preserves and certificates for supper at Ye Jolly Onion Inn. Edward's parents squeezing my seeded pearl shoulders, telling me I'm a welcome addition to their family.

Marriage is a trick to make you believe you can't be spun off the earth. A promise that the earth will continue to provide its foundation and atmosphere. Its gravity. Like holding your breath through a tunnel. Like not walking under ladders. That's what marriage is: the ultimate superstition.

I don't trust gravity. When I think of gravity, I have that grade school image of Sir Isaac Newton sitting under an apple tree and getting bonked on the head, standing up with the offending apple, not a Cortland, but maybe its predecessor, saying, "Aha! I've discovered gravity!" Gravity is bullshit. Ask an astronaut.

What I do trust though, is Thermodynamic Law. Entropy. Inertia. The tendency for matter to seek equilibrium, producing unusable energy. Chaos. Disorder. The thermodynamic penalty of existence. That's what I trust.

Edward plumbs for a living. What I knew of plumbing when I met him was only its reference to plumbum, lead on the periodic table of elements. Big P, little b.

Edward is a plumber by trade, but an artist in his heart. Pipes are his medium. Whether it's lead, copper, galvanized or flexible polybutylene--that's big P, big B-Edward lends himself to it. His whole self. I've seen him put together networks of pipe below a house with the grace of a dancer on point. I've held torches for him in tiny spaces, not because I had to, but because watching Edward do what he knows he does better than anyone is as close as I come to believing in gravity.

As newlyweds, Edward and I moved to a one-bedroom apartment on Main Street in Florida. A complex they call it: brick buildings, vintage 60's, two story, white trim, concrete stairs, either end. One covered space for my VW Rabbit, the other, the open space, for Edward's van. A closed system.

What Edward brought to our marriage, from a material standpoint, were tools, clothes and camping stuff. The rest of his belongings stayed with his parents in the house they'd owned forever, the house where Edward first discovered plumbing by retrieving his mother's wedding band from the kitchen sink trap.

Bringing up my moving-in boxes, the ones you rent from U-Haul that have been used and reused: kitchen, baby's room, garage, all crossed out in different ink, Edward asked me, "Linda, where are we going to put all this stuff?"

All this stuff was every scrap book, diary, yard sale treasure, outgrown blue jeans and quarter-filled bottle of shampoo I'd ever owned--my terrestrial stock. I organized and reorganized these things according to size, according to density, according to the alphabet.

My childhood wasn't owned forever. It had been sold by my freshly divorced parents to a big, Italian family. I watched them move in from my Rabbit parked across the street. They came complete with grandparents and pets; the father was already erecting a swing set for the kids.


We started off with a modern schedule. Being hip, young, double-income types, we split the chores 50-50. The cooking, the shopping, the laundry, the cleaning, all calendarized, a guarantee that we weren't about to be sucked off the planet; the myth of gravity holding us in place because we had an agenda. My cooking skills were recipe dependent, exact down to the distribution of paprika. Edward's suppers were always experiments: rosemary instead of oregano in spaghetti sauce, a marinade made from blending refrigerator door remnants.

"This is interesting," I'd say to Edward. "What's in it?"

Edward would shrug. His innate trust of everything, his grabbing without looking, his non-need for identification or explanation, was a freedom beyond me.

The day my newly dating mother called requesting information on condoms (Really dear, there are so many to choose from, why the colors alone . . .) I got off the phone limp. Edward, glowing from a day of creating a vast system of copper, allowing lead-free water to flow onto the hands and into the mouths of the school children at Florida Elementary, brought me close. The gravity of him holding me, making me be in a place, instead of no place, interrupted the image of my mother at Akin's Drugs asking for a box of Trojans.


Mid-State Women's and Children's, where I'm a lab tech on the seven-to-three shift, sounds like a correctional facility, but isn't. Not exactly. It's a hospital where oncologists make six figures and drive the real estate prices of an otherwise agricultural community higher than any black dirt farmer can afford. Post-and-beam masterpieces spring from the fertile earth every five acres or so. Homes where the insulating R values are almost as high as the doctors' incomes, keeping out the cold. Keeping out the cancer that built the homes.

Mid-State Women's and Children's is a closed system, physically. A closed system where entropy is predictable. Mid-State Women's and Children's: a closed system surrounding an open system: the living and dying free energy flow. The chaos and reconstruction of cancer cells and radiation. Molecules bouncing around no particular way, the randomness of disease. And in the belly of it all, a maternity ward. New life. It's called Steady State, being alive. Exchanging energy with all that there is: people, animals, the sky. Making the energy yours, giving off waste. That's what we do.


When I was a little girl, up in a converted attic bedroom, I hung upside down from a pole in the closet, a pole intended for my clothes. I liked rearranging myself, feeling the heat of my blood fall to my face. My parents, downstairs, were discussing the possibility of dissolution. Their voices dangled about my upside down ears.

"How would we work custody?" my father asked.

"I don't know," my mother mused, "six months with me, six with you? It would free us up in case one of us wanted to move."

"What about the holidays?" That would be my father, his voice almost lost in the turning of a newspaper page.

Being upside down became part of a superstition. Since the divorce didn't happen until custody was no longer an issue, I believed hearing my parents' voices upside down invalidated their words. I even named the superstition: Linda's Law of Irrelevantivity.

Next to Edward at night, his snoring, unconcerned body in one place, no tossing, no turning, I devised new laws. One night in particular, a spot on my throat burning like upholstery beneath an untended cigarette, a choking cough causing me to visualize a desired glass of water, I borrowed Edward's throat. I put my brain in an automatic car wash state, in neutral. Edward's snoring brushlessly flapped against my skull; moved me along. The rushing water, all of it together, left no space for my own disorder. Edward snored me his throat. No more burning spot, no need to get up for water. Linda's Law of Marital Exchange.


The day Edward almost met with his ultimate equilibrium by falling through the ceiling of an oncologist's mansion-in-progress, I was at his parents', helping his mother bury tulip bulbs. I'd never planted bulbs--too much promise, not enough guarantee. I preferred annuals; knowing what I was getting. But Edward's parents loved me and his mother stood patiently by while I strung a string between two carefully measured stakes, ensuring a straight line would come of this effort.

I had a ruler stabbed down the fourth hole when the phone rang. Edward's mother disappeared to take the call, then reappeared a minute later, her face a doughy pale. "There's been an accident," she said.

Florida Community Hospital, the other acute facility in town, had a busy Emergency Room that day. Bloody fingers, swollen eyes, sprained ankles, lots of damaged people. Edward was not in the waiting room. The ER receptionist directed us to a curtained cubicle in the back. Edward's mother led the way. Whatever greeted us behind those curtains would belong to Edward's mother first.

Edward was sitting sideways on the gurney, swinging his legs off the edge. In his left hand, a half-eaten apple. His right arm was taped to his chest, the flannel sleeve of his shirt hanging free.

"Look, Ma," Edward said, pointing his chin at the empty sleeve, "no arm."

Edward smiled over his mother's shoulder, she was squeezing him carefully like he was one big bruise. There were bits of apple in his mustache, catching the beam of the overhead lamp, glistening flecks of gold.

"Dislocated shoulder," Edward said into the space between me and him. "Not too serious considering what could have happened."

I looked at the bits of earth still bunched under my fingernails, the earth from Edward's parents' house. "What could have happened?" I asked.

"Could have fallen three stories to the basement. The sub floor wasn't nailed down."

Edward's mother backed away from him. "Linda," she said, "come give your husband a hug."

I laced my arms around Edward's neck. "How did you manage to not fall to the basement?" I asked.

"The pipes," he said. "I grabbed for them when I felt myself going down."

I kept my arms around my husband for a long time. I closed my eyes and held on the way I imagined he had saved himself on the strength of his own creation. I held him, banishing doubt, banishing mistrust, inviting whatever lay beyond physics. Beyond entropy and gravity and into the space where I could be or not be. The space where the sky on my face was real and mine and forever.

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