Mr. Leith

Was he simply the family’s plumber, or just a little bit more?

Plumber tightening a valve on a pipe

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She was 11, which at that time was a child. She went and stood near her mother and said, “Mr. Leith is cute.” Her mother was at the sewing machine. Every mother sewed, had a flower garden, had a box of recipes and wrote hers out for the others on her own cards. Or maybe not every single one. No, some didn’t have to, or didn’t know they had to.

Lucy was not going to. She was going to do whatever she wanted. She only said Mr. Leith was cute because of her older sisters, who used the word every day on the school bus and at the dinner table and in their room — they were twins and got to share a room. Not so long after that, Lucy would go right past them both, to words they would not have dared to speak. She came late, her mother always said to her father. She’s not the same as the twins, she has her own ways. Lucy knew that made her the favorite.

Mr. Leith was the plumber. He had been the little brother of the plumber — more than a dozen years between his brother’s age and his — and then his apprentice, and now he drove the Leith & Leith truck alone. He would be in the kitchen where the pipes and spigots were giving out or he would disappear down the ladder to the well. When his brother was gone, he began to bring a dog with him, a hound. The dog stayed in the truck; she would put her paws, carefully one at a time, up on the rim of the truck bed so she could think about stretching her neck down to be petted. Her eyes scanning the house for Mr. Leith were a lighter brown than her coat. Amber, Lucy’s mother said. They shone as if with tears as she looked for Mr. Leith. She wouldn’t look directly into Lucy’s eyes when Lucy stood there petting her.

Mr. Leith would be 32 in August, her mother said. His brother had had his heart attack at 46. When he was on his own after his brother died, Mr. Leith had gone to the pound to get the dog, whose name was Brownie, so as to have company on his rounds. They were always on their own, the Leith brothers, poor things, her mother said. Never did have much in the way of a home. How do you know? Lucy said. The mother died before the war, her mother said, and the father drank. Tom Leith never did marry, but this one got married in his teens.

Lucy could see for herself that Mr. Leith was not cheerful. She could remember the older brother laughing at him and bringing her Snickers bars.

Mr. Leith the Second. That’s what Lucy calls you, she heard her mother tell him one summer day. That day two things struck Lucy. First, she stopped in the kitchen doorway and looked at Mr. Leith half under the sink. She saw his long back and his waist. She saw his jeans. When he hunched his way out she saw his shoulders spread to their full extent and his hand go to the back of his neck. She felt herself sucked into another body. She put her hand on her own neck under the hair she was growing long.

Won’t you have a cup of coffee? her mother’s voice said. This irritated Lucy because it was what her mother said to people who had dropped in, and then they stayed. Usually she said tea or coffee, but she didn’t offer Mr. Leith the choice. No thank you, he said. Thought I’d take a look in the well, he said, as if the well with its unsteady pump were his own to look at if he chose.

Later in the day he was in the kitchen again with his tools and Lucy went in and asked him about the dog. Why can’t she get out and run around? Or come in? We could let her in. No, he said calmly. He didn’t say anything more and the sensation she had had earlier when he was under the sink went through her again, followed by a wish to be mean. She said to him, Don’t you get all dirty when you have to do this stuff?

No, he said. He held out his clean hands and looked at them. Some heat came to her face and she shut her eyes and rubbed the eyeballs through the lids. What did your father die of? Your brother I mean. I mean I used to think he was your father. When you both came, whenever that was, when I was young. You always came with him. I thought you were his kid. And why can’t your dog come in? Now she was talking a mile a minute.

He was a father, more or less, said Mr. Leith. Less, he said after a pause. That was when he looked straight at her as he was standing up and she thought she couldn’t breathe. She don’t want to get in anybody’s house, he said. She’s a trained dog. I trained her. I’m the on’y one she wants to be with.

Why do you say on’y instead of only? Lucy said. She couldn’t stop herself.

Why do you say what you say?

She was ready to pretend that made her mad. Without looking at him she was scuffing her foot on the rag rug. Now he had his subject, though, the dog. She was the best dog they had over there, he said. She’s voice trained. I don’t have to raise my voice. I’ll say her name, or what I want her to do. Or I’ll lie two fingers on her back and she’ll stop what she’s doing and wait for me to say.

Lie two fingers? Lucy said. She almost gave him the rule for lie and lay. She could tell he had been told about it, maybe gently by her mother the teacher, and had it wrong. Instead she said, How can she tell how many it is?

She knows.

Why doesn’t he talk? she asked her mother out on the porch where she couldn’t be heard.

He’s tired and he doesn’t have anything to talk about, her mother said, as if those were accomplishments. It’s his wife Jewel, she added. She’d make anybody tired. Always waiting for the check.

Her mother always gave Mr. Leith his check through the truck window, as if she had just remembered and had to run out with it and make him roll the window down.

His wife’s pregnant, her mother said, and her brown eyes took on a shine like the dog’s. Pregnant, she said again.

Later her mother kept talking to him about the sink and the well and the bill. They had sat themselves down at the kitchen table. Lucy couldn’t hear her and he wasn’t answering. Her mother had lowered her voice as she did with the twins so they would have to quiet down about boys and listen. He had his head down while she talked in the low voice; he wasn’t saying anything. A silence fell. Lucy could hear the mutter of the tractor with her father on it at the back of the farm. While it was going on her mother laid a hand on Mr. Leith’s forearm. After a minute he put his own hand on top of it.

For years Lucy could think and think about this without being able to see exactly how it came about so slowly and without surprising her. Mr. Leith, Mr. Leith, she always said to herself when she remembered it. She could see her own hair almost to the shoulders and she could still see the face of the dog in the truck, but not his face, bowed over the kitchen table.

Valerie Trueblood has published short stories in One Story, Iowa Review, the Seattle Times, and The Saturday Evening Post, among others. A contributing editor to the American Poetry Review, she has also authored a novel and short story collections, most recently Terrarium (2018).

This story is featured in the July/August 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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Comments

  1. Darn! This story intrigued me immediately, but ended too abruptly. …And…what happened next?

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