Age: 15, Grade: 10
School Name: Stuyvesant High School, New York, NY
Educator: Eric Grossman
Category: Short Story
A Plumber From Kyiv
The simple plumber Oleksander Yiranek loved a woman, though he knew nothing of her beyond her name.
For Oleksander, it had not been love at first sight that had drawn him to her, but love at first sound: one morning weeks ago, replacing the flapper of the toilet in Apartment 2B, he had heard the sounds of a life, a woman’s life, coming from the apartment above. The clonk of dropped shoes, a faucet clearing its rusty throat, and a voice, a lady’s voice, stabbing the air with an inharmonious song. And upon these first notes, Oleksander Yiranek knew himself to be in love.
He believed that it was God, the celestial matchmaker, who had brought them together. It was God who had willed him to Mariupol from his hometown in Kyiv. It was God who had commanded his beloved’s toilet to choke on its swallow of waste. And it was God who had ordained that the super should choose him, Oleksander Yiranek, to attend to the clog in Apartment 3B.
Oleksander, a plumber both simple and religious, knew that what had called him to his beloved’s bathroom was not a clogged toilet, but a heaven-ordained promise of love. *** Plunging away at the porcelain bowl, Oleksander turned his beloved’s name over in his mouth–Maryna, Maryna Bilenko. (He had learned her name only the day before, from the tenant mailboxes in the lobby.) Maryna, “mar”–the sea, a mermaid. Maryna–Mary, Mina, Rina, Mimi, for short. Maryna Bilenko for now, but very soon, he felt sure, she would be Maryna Yiranek.
The toilet spluttered and gagged. No luck! Best to try the auger next. Maryna, Maryna, Maryna. Sliding the auger into the bowl and beginning to crank, Oleksander felt it catch on something hard, something solid.
“What on earth?”
He drew the auger out and found on the end not the mound of calcified waste he had expected, but a plastic bugle, red and obnoxious as a clown nose. Oleksander unhooked the bugle from the auger and dried it on his shirt. He lifted it, still dripping, to his lips. How do you play the bugle?
Oleksander gave a puff into the mouthpiece–a spray of water. A hum? Whistle? Screech? Fruitless! He shook the bugle as if to dislodge his own ineptitude, and raised it once more to his mouth.
Stinking, jaundiced water shot through the bell and splattered across the bathroom floor.
BLARP BLARP BLARP!
This mutant bugle made a flatulent fanfare.
Oleksander Yiranek was delighted with his new trinket, drawn from the water like the prophetic Moses. He shouted for Ms. Bilenko to come quick, for he had discovered the most wonderful present hiding in her toilet.
Marina Bilenko was leaning against the doorway casing, to Oleksander the picture of divine impatience–her shoes were halfway on, pale cornrows growing frizz like a fungus. And she was scowling at him, but oh, what a beautiful scowl!
“I am Oleksander Yiranek, your plumber.” He stuck out one latex-covered hand. She did not take it. “I’m from Kyiv.”
“What do you want?”
What do you want?
For Oleksander, the answers to this question were infinite.
“What do I want? I want–I want…” He faltered then, staring at the pencilled-in arch of her eyebrows. He forced his eyes back to hers. “I want to give you a present I found. Please, sit down.”
He reached for her arm, but she shook him off.
“Don’t touch me!” Instantly, Oleksander’s hand jumped away from her arm, as though scorched. “You think I don’t know what guys like you are up to? You think I’m dumb or something?”
“What? No, no! I only wanted to–”
“Only wanted to what? Touch me with your filthy hands because you know I’m alone in my apartment? Trust me, I know all your dirty tricks, so don’t even try them on me.”
But “filthy” and “dirty” meant little to Oleksander, for these descriptors were as much a part of his profession as plungers and drain rods. No, he found her onslaught charming, her passionate defense of female modesty. Maryna Bilenko was not only beautiful, but virtuous!
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Please forgive me. It was never my intention to-to-” She stared at him. “To, well, you know.” He gave a laugh, his uncertainty echoing back at him from off the cold, reptilian bathroom tiles. Maryna did not smile.
“You needed something?”
“What? I–oh, yes, um–” Awkwardly, he patted his pockets, as though expecting to find the right words hidden inside. “I wanted to show you what was clogging your pipes. I think you’ll like it.”
“Like it?” she laughed. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
“No, please, just let me show you! It’s not that at all! It’s… it’s beautiful.” He squeezed the bugle behind his back–drops of clammy water dripped from the bell and onto his pants.
“You’re crazy.” Maryna’s arms were folded. “You really are. But you know what? I’m gonna play nice with you.” Maryna Bilenko was not only beautiful and virtuous, but benevolent! “So where is it?” She glanced at Oleksander’s pockets. “Where’s your little present for me?”
“Right here!” Oleksander took the bugle from behind his back. He had the flushed enthusiasm of a child presenting artwork to his mother. “Play it if you want!” Maryna stared. “Or, if you want, I’ll try first.” He shook the bugle and gave a preparatory spit into the mouthpiece. “Ready?”
He pressed his lips against the mouthpiece and blew.
BLARP! BLARP BLARP BLARP!
“Amazing, isn’t it?” Maryna said nothing. “What–you don’t like it?”
“You heard me.” She picked up Oleksander’s equipment duffel and flung it into the outside corridor.
“But, Maryna, please! I still have so much left to show you!” Oleksander said, clutching the bugle to the bib of his overalls.
“Get out of here before I call the police.”
“The police? Maryna, please don’t-”
But she was already pulling him from the bathroom, down the corridor, and to the apartment door. He barely managed to snatch up his duffel from the hallway.
Oleksander Yiranek stood by the front door, duffel in one hand, bugle in the other. Remembering that Maryna, in her anger, had grabbed the duffel, Oleksander closed his hand tighter around the handle. He willed himself to leave, to turn and walk through the door, let it shut behind him. But the threat of “the police” seemed so nebulous, and when Maryna was standing there in front of him, angry and shoeless, how could he possibly have moved?
“Maryna, please. Please, just wait.”
“Or you can wait,” she said. “Wait for me to call the police.”
“Maryna, no! Just one moment, plea-”
“Get out!” She pushed him out onto the doormat.
When the door slammed shut and the lock rattled into place, Oleksander looked down at his hands and found that his bugle was crumbling, dissolving to nothing. In silence, Oleksander Yiranek, the simple plumber from Kyiv, watched the instrument’s ashes fall upon the doormat of his old beloved.