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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Will Works for Food

Published: October 26, 2007
Section: Arts, Etc.

For the last 45 years Bill Field, the plumber, had serviced the houses of Hickory, as had his father before him and his grandfather before that. The name painted on the side of the battered company truck (which was not the same truck as his father and grandfather had driven, but still a Ford in olive green) was Will Works For Food.

It had character, the truck, and fit Bill Field like a broken-in shoe. The shocks squeaked comfortably as he settled into the seat to go over his list, snuffling as he checked off boxes, tapping the eraser of his chewed pencil against the page. Mavis Johnsons box of pan-fried chicken on the seat next to him, the aroma of the still-hot grease welling up in the cool air of the cab.

The Will Works had been the brainchild of Joseph William Field, a great-grandfather of staunch anti-capitalist persuasion. Joe Field had seen no need for government intrusion in the form of the paper dollar, insisting that the country would be stronger and on the whole more honest if people exchanged goods for services, services for goods.

By the time Joe Fields traded in his life for a pair of wings and soared up to that currency-free paradise in the sky, Will Works For Food was a soundly-established business.

In this day and age, Bill Field couldnt work entirely for food. There was the gas tank to fill and taxes to pay, and his and Maes anniversary was coming up. But as Hickory aged it became even more firmly rooted in tradition, and Bill Field was so famous he could hardly unstop a kitchen sink without being pressed to take a paper bag of homemade ginger snaps or a rewarmed slice of tuna casserole in a Tupperware. Today it had been garden tomatoes and pumpkin muffins with fresh-squeezed lemonade.

Bill climbed back into his truck. He thought about taking the chicken home to Mae before it got cold, but he had one more job to go. So Bill Field cranked up the old truck, waved goodbye to Mavis Johnson through her kitchen window, and drove off to earn his daily bread.

The drive took him outside of town, to one of the new subdivisions that had been popping up like mushrooms in the outskirts. Bill and Mae lived in town, next to the volunteer fire department, and though he knew most of the town he hadnt come into contact with the new people. There was more traffic on the road, newer, shinier cars jostling for parking spaces at the Wal-Mart, but no faces to go along with them.

Bill snuffled to himself and slowed down, peering at street signs as he went. Hidden Meadows, Glenbrook Way, the Estates at Kilmore. He eased onto Whispering Pine Hollow. It was treeless, startlingly hot after the cool shade of town. There wasnt a pine in sight, just hundreds of oversized, nearly-identical houses crammed onto tiny lots.

The asphalt shimmered, and Bill flapped his collar. He checked the directions again and wheeled onto Lily Pond Drive. A circle of white houses ringed him like a panel of blind judges. The street was silent. The shades on all of the windows were drawn.

He parked in the street, checked his notepad one more time, and killed the engine. The house sprawled ostentatiously in a thin fringe of brilliantly green lawn.Bill shrugged and hoisted his toolbox from the back.

It was a heavy contraption the color of old mud, sides warped and beaten. It had been his grandfather Williams and his father Wills, and Bill Field, getting on towards sixty, was getting too old to lug it around anymore. But he and Mae only had the girls, and he couldnt see hiring out the family business to some illegal, so Bill Field still ran the Works. The thought that he was probably the last Field to carry the battered box from truck to house made him feel old and tired. But the bulge above
Bill Fields belt was evidence of a life well-lived and a job well done, and he assumed that in whatever free-market utopia Joseph Field was resting, he forgave him.

The house had no porch. Bill stood on the cement stoop and rang the doorbell.

The door cracked slightly, and a Northern womans voice said, yeah?

Maam, you called a plumber? Bill said.

The woman blinked from the shade of her house and peered past him into the brightness of the street. Yes, she said.

They stood for a moment. Did you want me to fix something? Bill asked at last.

The toilets leaking, the woman said. Her hair was brown and sleek, smoothed back elegantly, and she wore a tapering skirt too chic for a Wednesday morning in the suburbs. From the increasingly hot cement stoop, Bill could smell her perfume.

Bill coughed. The weight of the toolbox was straining his left side. Well, he said pointedly, I cant very well fix it from the porch.

The woman raised an eyebrow. Right. I need you to go around through the back door.

Just where is this toilet of yours?

In the bathroom, she said guardedly. But we finally got the new carpet in this front hallway, and I dont want anyone tracking mud on it.

Bill looked down at his boots. He only did indoor jobs these days, and the soles of his shoes were as clean as they could get. But he looked up at the woman and, seeing the argument in her face, shrugged.

Yeah, thanks, she said. A strange expression flitted over her face, as though she remembered too late to smile, but the door closed and she was gone.

Bill Field stood on her stoop, toolbox in hand, then sighed and stepped out onto the recently turfed lawn. He reappeared at the back door, drenched, and pounded with a heavy hand.

Janet Kingston opened the door and blinked. Why did you walk through the sprinkler? she asked.

I was bout halfway through your yard when they started going off, Bill said tersely.

Oh God, what a mess, Janet said disapprovingly. She looked past him into the yard. Those stupid things. Theyre on some kind of timer. I cant figure them out.
Bill dripped on her welcome mat.

She regarded the legs of his sodden pants, and her mouth twitched. Do you want tomaybe stay out here and dry off a little? she asked distastefully.

Bill ran a hand through his thinning hair, skimming off a thin film of water. If its all the same to you, he said tightly. Id rather go ahead and tackle that toilet.

Right, said Janet. Well. Come in. She stepped back, keeping her distance as though she were afraid hed shake himself off.

Bill stepped inside and into a blast of frigid air. His clothing, rapidly cooling, collapsed slowly against his skin, and the hair on his arms rose. Christ Almighty, he thought, and wondered what her electric bill was. Or would be, he realized, taking in the neatly stacked cardboard boxes and mounds of wadded newspaper that huddled in the archival cold of the living room.

Still moving in? he asked.

Yep, Janet answered, closing the door behind him. She stood behind him for a moment, leaning against the little ruffled curtain on the door. He turned to look at her, and she said, toilets down the hall. On the left.

Bill stared at her, and said thanks. He slid a little on the tiled floor, then turned and said, waterings prohibited on even days of the month. Youll want to look into that.

Oh, she said. Ill tell my husband. She opened her mouth to say more, then looked at her hip. Oh, Im vibrating! she murmured, and waved him on. On the left!

Bill, in the frigid hallway, smelled the toilet before he got there, and wrinkled his nose. A thin layer of brownish water seethed outward from its base. He raised the lid, coughed and wished hed brought a mask for his face. Grudgingly, he set his toolbox down on the edge of the bathtub.

He could hear Janet moving throughout the house, laughing lightly as he tackled her toilet. Her laughter, shrill and nasal, penetrated his thoughts as he tried to work on her toilet. Shed called in a leak, but the opaque water that uselessly circled the bowl told him immediately that it was a clog.

The pitch of her voice rose and fell as she paced the hallway outside, lingering outside the bathroom door despite the smell. He realized suddenly that she was afraid he might steal something, and for a horribly comic moment he tried not to laugh. What did this woman think he wanted? To pocket her Ikea faucet heads? Her paisley shower curtain? A thermos of her shitwater?

Outside the door, Janet laughed. Hold on, Ill ask him. She raised her voice. Hey! You know theres a typo on the side of your truck? she called from the hall.

Bill grunted. No, there aint, he called back.

Janet peered around the doorframe, phone still glued to her ear. Oh, thats disgusting, she muttered, and then, as though he were deaf, on your truck. It says Will Works For Food.

Bill put down his toolbox and turned to face her. I know, he answered loudly. Im Will.

Hold on a minute, Janet told the phone insistently, and then, youre Will?

Bill, he said. Bill Field.

The skepticism was heavy in her voice. And you work for food. She laughed at something the phone had whispered, kept her eyes on his bent back. There was something unpleasant about being watched like that. She was waiting for a punchline, not an answer.

No, Bill said. He lifted the lid of the toilet, tapped the useless handle. The toilet made a choked sound. I dont.

Then why is it called that? Janet asked. Hold on, she told the phone. And then, to Bill, Hey. Why is it called that?

Her attention was divided between phone and him;

Bill doubted she could hear much of his words beyond their shape. Its a family name, he said. The rest of the story, cut short, hardened and sank in his chest.

Will Works? And then, to the phone, ohmiGod, I know.

Bill rose and closed his grandfathers toolbox. Your toilets clogged. Its overflowing, not leaking. She stared, and he said, you can plunge it? As though she didnt speak English. Itll fix. Your problem.

Janet sucked air in through her teeth and held the phone to her chest, delicately.

Oh, Im pretty sure we didnt buy one of those yet. Ill ask Pierce to pick one up.
Bill sighed. I got one in my truck. Hold on just a second.

Her laughter followed him, theatrical and ostentatious, as he dodged the sprinklers and headed out to his truck. As he stared up at the blind side of the enormous house, he suddenly realized that she wanted him to hear, needed him to hear her having a good time.

He returned with the plunger, a cracking rubber cup that had been red once and was black now, and stared at the toilet with distaste. Of all the shit in the world, it seemed unfair that he had to deal with hers.

She stopped him on the way out. The phone was still glued to her ear. Hang on, she said. Hang on just a second. She ran lightly to the pantry in plastic heels, digging with her free hand as she laughed affectedly into the phone.

Bill stood at the back door and sighed. The world shimmered outside. An endless row of identical off-white houses marched away from him in a straight line beyond the wooden fence. The sun, on the naked landscape, was merciless.

Janets voice grew exponentially louder as she approached him. Here you go! she said brightly. She winked broadly at him. Will works for food, right?

Bill looked at her manicured hand. She held out a package of Top Ramen and an overripe pear.

Ill send your bill in the mail, he said in a hoarse voice, and strode out across the chemically green lawn.

The truck had been parked on the curb of the shadeless street and baking in the sun;

a furious blast of heat struck Bill in the face when he opened the door, and he began sweating immediately. The seat buckle burned his side as he leaned across the seat to unroll the passengers side window, and he swore silently.

Ignoring the heat, Bill Field cranked up his truck and swung a slow U-turn in the middle of Lily Pond Drive. The sweltering warmth in the cab unleashed a wave of smells that had been locked in the fabric of his beaten bench seat, years worth of fruitcakes, of home fries, of fresh garden tomatoes and apple turnovers. For the first time in 45 years, he did not turn and look over his shoulder as he pulled away.

Janet Kingston did not watch through the kitchen window as Bill Field pulled away.

Yeah, she said into the phone. No, he didnt take it. He said hell send the bill in the mail.

Yes, of course Ill pay it! I mean, Jesus. For all I know, they still believe in the death penalty down here.

Oh God, I know. Yeah, theres not even a movie theater. The nearest mall is half an hour away. She sighed, and listened.

But I mean, you should see this town, she said. The people here are so cute. I dont even know if theyve heard of the internet yet. She laughed. Oh, exactly. Like that plumber. So cute. I just wanted to write down everything he said. Hmm?
She paused and listened, concealing a flicker of disappointment. Oh. Okay. No! No, dont worry about it. Ive got to go, too. Yeah. Okay, you too. Bye.

Janet Kingston hung up the phone and swayed for a moment in the empty kitchen. She wandered into the living room, readjusted the little country ducks on the faux mantelpiece. A leaf blower picked up somewhere distant in the sweltering heat outside, and she sighed, wondering why life in the country was so lonely.