Plumber’s Helper

Single parent Emma has handyman John’s number saved in her cellphone for emergencies—and maybe for romance.

Plumber in a kitchen

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“What did he do this time, Emma?” John the plumber asked. A handsome man near my age, John had visited my home more times than I could count during the previous couple of years, and he always greeted me with a smile. I wondered if it was because he genuinely liked seeing me, or if he just liked the steady work my son and I provided.

The last time John had been to my house was to remove a stuffed bunny Austin had tried to flush down the toilet. The time before that, my son had emptied his marble collection into the kitchen sink and the marbles had rolled into the garbage disposal. Lucky, I saw them head down the drain and knew not turn the disposal on.

“I can’t blame my son this time,” I explained as I reached down and patted Austin’s head. My son liked John and always answered the door with me when he knew we were expecting the plumber. I was beginning to wonder if he did some of the things he did because he knew I would call John. “I dropped an earring in the bathroom sink, and it went down the drain before I could stop it. I wouldn’t care if it were costume jewelry, but it’s a diamond stud from a pair my husband gave me.”

John appeared disappointed when he asked, “You’re married?”

We had never discussed my marital status, nor had we ever discussed his, but neither of us wore wedding rings.

“I — We lost Austin’s father two years ago,” I said. Though I still missed my husband, I had reached the point where I was ready to move on with my life. What bothered me most is that Austin had been so young when his father died that he never really had the chance to bond with him. “Cancer.”

“I didn’t know,” John said. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

The look on the plumber’s face and the sincerity in his pale blue eyes let me know he really did feel sorry.

“My husband used to take care of things like this,” I continued, “but now that he’s gone—”

When I let my sentence hang in the air, John finished it. “Now that your husband’s gone you have to do everything, including be both mother and father.”

I nodded. “I’m learning to do things I never thought I would have to do. Just in the last year I’ve learned how to change a tire and charge a car battery.”

After listening to my list of newly acquired skills, none of which involved plumbing, John asked, “You haven’t run the water since you dropped the earring, have you?”

“Heavens, no!”

John smiled. “Then it should be easy enough to rescue your earring, Emma. Let me get my toolbox.”

I watched as John walked to his van, admiring his clean blue uniform and the professional way he presented himself each time I called him for help. His entire demeanor was unlike that of other tradesmen I had hired to fix things, which is why his number was the only plumber’s number saved in my cellphone. When John returned, he asked my son if he wanted to help rescue my earring. Austin beamed and nodded vigorously.

“Show Mr. John where the bathroom is,” I told my son, even though I felt certain the plumber would remember the way, having once rescued a waterlogged bunny from the only toilet in the house.

I followed them and sat on the edge of the bathtub. My son sat cross-legged on the floor, and we watched John open the cabinet below the sink and examine everything. Then he placed a bucket beneath the pipes to catch any water that spilled out.

He tapped the drain pipe with one finger and told my son, “This is a p-trap —”

When Austin giggled, John gave him a stern glare and continued.

“— and we have to remove it to get your mother’s earring.”


John took several things from his tool chest. He showed Austin how to adjust a crescent wrench and fit it around one of the slip nuts. Then he loosened the nut before letting my son finish unscrewing it.

As they were working, I asked, “Do you like being a plumber?”

With a glint in his eye, John said, “Sometimes it’s draining.”

I laughed at his little joke.

“Mostly I like being my own boss,” he said, “but it’s tough on relationships. I get calls all hours of the night and I can’t afford to turn down work. Worse, I haven’t had a home-cooked meal in ages.”

“Try dating as a single parent,” I said, subtly letting him know that I had begun dating again. “I’ve tried a few times, but men just don’t understand that my son takes priority.”

By then, John was half-under the sink with Austin so I couldn’t see his face when he said, “Maybe you’ve dated the wrong men.”

Maybe I had, but I didn’t admit that out loud.

John loosened the other slip nut and let Austin unscrew it. Then he removed the J-bend pipe and upended it over the bucket. A bunch of dirty water and other gunk cascaded out. Austin stuck his hand in it and pulled out my missing diamond stud.

“Here it is, Mom!” my son said as he handed it to me. I would have to clean the diamond stud before I wore it, but I was glad not to have lost the last Christmas gift my husband ever gave me.

While I watched, John showed Austin how to put everything back together and test for leaks. Then my son and I walked John to the front door, where the plumber and I stood in the open doorway smiling at one another as if neither wanted the moment to end.

“How much do I owe you this time?” I asked as I reached for my purse.

“There’s no charge, Emma.”

I looked up. “But —”

“Austin did most of the work,” John said with a smile. I smiled in return when he added, “I just loaned him the tools.”

“I did!” my son insisted. “I did everything just like Mr. John told me.”

We stared at each other for a moment more before John asked, “Is there anything else I can do for you before I go?”

“There is,” I told him. I knew I was taking a risk when I continued, but it was a risk I felt certain would be worthwhile. “We’re having dinner at six o’clock tonight, and we’d like for you to join us.”

“I —” He hesitated.

Austin’s eyes had grown big and round when he realized that I had just invited his favorite person to dinner. He grabbed the plumber’s hand and added, “Please, Mr. John?”

I added, “And we won’t get upset if you get a call and have to rush off in the middle of dinner to unclog someone else’s pipes.”

John smiled and his blue eyes twinkled. “I won’t rush off during dinner. I wouldn’t do that to you, Emma. I’ll let the answering service take my calls. After all, I know what takes priority.”

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