Keller could not say when he first heard it. It was not there when he went to bed and he could swear that he had not slept a wink. But perhaps he was wrong. Maybe I dozed off, just for a minute, he thought. And in that unguarded minute, it had begun–the dripping.
It was not loud; it was faint. Very faint. But it was undeniably there, impossible to ignore. Keller was tired from his chronic lack of sleep. Despite the pills, he had not slept well for the past three months, since his wife Janice left him. He wondered how Janice was sleeping these days. Probably better than he was; she was a decisively sound sleeper.
At first he simply lay there. What did he care about the drip? He couldn’t sleep anyway. Better to lie still, under the blankets, where it was warm at least, and hope that sleep would overcome him eventually. That was better than getting up and traipsing down the cold hall to the bathroom to turn the faucet tight. Let it drip till doomsday for all I care, he thought. He fluffed his pillow and turned over on his back. Despite now being the lone occupant of the bed, he still tended to sleep on the left, his side, rather than encroach on the right, her side. Janice was a woman who did not liked to be encroached upon. Fuck it, he thought, scooted over to the middle of the bed and spitefully spread his arms and legs to claim maximum space. But he was not comfortable.
Keller glanced at the clock on the night table. The clock’s blue digits glowed 2:02. The little blue dot in the upper left hand corner assured him that the alarm was set and would buzz him awake–if he was lucky enough to have fallen asleep–at 6:15 so he could get up and go to work. It was important that he get to work on time. Recently he had been repeatedly late and he knew he was on thin ice with his new boss. They’d had a heated argument about the polar ice cap. Keller did not believe it was melting and said even if it was he didn’t care. But now it was one of the things he thought about when lying awake at night.
Keller sat up in bed, the blankets falling to his waist, and felt a rush of cold air wash over his bare chest. “Alright, you win, you win,” he said, pushed the blankets down and hoisted himself out of bed, his feet hitting the frigid hardwood floor, and hurried, shivering in his shorts, out of the bedroom, down the hall to the bathroom.
He clicked on the light and stared at the gray sink. The faucet was dripless; the sink was dry. He pulled the shower curtain aside, bent down, and looked at the faucet in the bathtub. No drip. Bone dry. He sat down on the toilet and listened. Somewhere something was still dripping. He got up and lifted the lid of the toilet. The water in the bowl was still as ice and tinted a pale yellow. Shit, he thought, and shook his head. Janice had a habit of not flushing the toilet after peeing, something Keller had mildly chided her about. It had become an issue between them that transcended personal hygiene. Now he was the one being negligent. He ran his hand through his sparse hair. Although only forty, he had little hair left. Janice had hinted at a hairpiece. She said bald was not sexy, despite what bald men hoped. He flushed the toilet, put the lid down, and sat on it, waiting for the slushing and gurgling to stop, so he could listen.
Keller dropped his face in his hands and began to cry. Oh, get a grip, for Christ’s sake, he thought. He took some toilet tissue, blew his nose, and sat looking around the bathroom. Janice was never happy with it. She had always wanted a bathroom attached to the master bedroom, en suite, as she said, like everyone else had. But they couldn’t afford to remodel. She hated that the bathroom was down the hall and was so dark and old fashioned. The white cast iron ball and claw foot tub–with its polished brass talons– particularly disturbed her. She called it predatory. But Keller loved it. He loved everything about the old house, the house he had grown up in and had inherited from his mother: the wide slightly warped plank floors, the high ceilings where shadows played, the drafty casement windows, the sooty stone fireplace, even the creaking and groaning of the house in the night, as it settled to sleep. Lately the creaking and groaning had become a drawback; they seemed to conspire with a host of other subtle disturbances, previously unnoticed, to keep him awake.
He considered what else could be dripping in his house. He was just headed down the narrow stairs to the kitchen when the phone rang. He hurried back to the bedroom with that urgency inspired by a ringing phone in the night and picked up the phone after the third ring.
“Hello?” Keller whispered, as if not to wake up the rest of the house.
There was a silent pause on the other end of the phone, then it went dead.
“Hello?” he said again, a bit louder. He sat still and listened to the dial tone. He glanced at the clock: 2: 22. Who’s up at this time of night, he thought, except me?
He got up and took a sweat shirt from the chair by the bed and slipped it over his head, picked up his pants, hesitated, then threw them back on the chair. “Fuck it,” he said and headed downstairs in his shorts to the kitchen.
He clicked on the kitchen light and saw something–although he couldn’t swear to it–scurry along the baseboard and disappear. Janice claimed they had mice, but Keller had never seen one. And the traps she made him set were never sprung. When Keller would show her the unsprung traps, instead of being relieved, she looked resentful. She seemed to blame him, somehow, for not catching her phantom mice, as if they were outwitting him or were in some other way simply beyond his grasp. Keller even considered going to the pet store, buying a few mice and feeding them into the traps, just to have something to show her and put the issue to rest. He was willing to break the necks of a thousand mice if it would appease her. But before he could get around to it, Janice left him for Spencer, a man he had never seen and knew little about, except that Janice worked with him, he was an attorney, and, by her own admission, was substantially younger than her. Janice was shocked that Keller was surprised to learn of the affair; she said she thought it was obvious.
“I had no fucking idea,” was what Keller told her. And it was the truth: he had seen, heard, and thought nothing. Sixteen years of marriage dissolved in ten minutes; Janice left and moved in with Spencer who lived just three hours away, returning a few times to collect some things. But she seemed in no hurry to work out a divorce; nor was Keller.
Keller stood in the middle of the kitchen and listened closely. The refrigerator was humming softly and steadily. Warm air was hissing gently from the heating vent. The window over the sink rattled a little in the night wind. And somewhere something was dripping; but it was hard to tell where the sound was coming from, whether above or below, in front or behind him. Keller seemed to hear it just under the surface of all the other small sounds around him.
The faucet in the kitchen sink was closed tight. He ran his finger around the drain. It was cold and dry. He opened the refrigerator and peered inside. The hum was louder but there was no sign of dripping anywhere. He checked the ice box section. Not a sound. Just chicken in cloudy plastic bags, each bag boldly marked by Janice in waterproof black marker: legs; thighs; breasts; livers. Janice bought in bulk and kept the parts separately. The dismembered chickens had been there since she left and remained frozen and untouched. Keller did not like chicken and was glad not to have to eat it anymore. But he could not get himself to throw it out.
He opened the cabinet under the sink, got down on his hands and knees, and peered inside. He moved the arsenal of cleansers in cans and bottles–Janice has enough cleansers to sanitize the whole fucking world, he thought–and stuck his head into the cabinet, twisting his neck to look up at the bottom of the sink and the pipes beneath it. Just as he put his hand on the old copper drain pipe, the phone rang.
Keller ran back up the stairs, ignoring the phone in the living room, but when he got back to the bedroom, he stopped suddenly. He sat down on the edge of the bed by the nightstand and looked at the phone. It was on the fourth or fifth ring and seemed to get louder each time. I don’t need this, he thought. He pulled the blanket off the bed and wrapped it around his shoulders like a cape. “It’s almost three o’clock, for Christ’s sake,” he whispered to the phone accusingly. He picked it up and put it to his ear. “Hello?”
“Oh, hi. Is Janice there?”
“Who is this?” said Keller.
“Yes. I’m sorry. Mr. Keller?”
“Of course it’s Mr. Keller. Who the fuck do you think lives here?” Keller shouted.
A pause. “Is Janice there, Mr. Keller?”
“Of course she’s not here,” Keller said, whispering again. “She’s with you, for Christ’s sake.”
“Oh come on, Keller. Why don’t you just put her on the phone and maybe we can all get some sleep tonight.”
“Listen to me, you prick,” said Keller, standing, the blanket falling off his shoulders and pooling around his feet, “Janice is not here. I am alone. The room is cold. Something is dripping in my house. Do you hear me? Something is dripping.”
The phone went dead.
“Shit!” shouted Keller. He slammed the phone down and began to pace around the room. “Son of a bitch!” He was hot and breathless. He crossed the room and cranked open the casement window and stood leaning on the window sill sucking in a rush of cold night air. He looked up and down the block where the only light was a faint one on the porch of a house half a block down, and even that light was flickering. The night was deep and dark with no moon and not a single star in the sky. He looked at the leader where it joined the gutter on the corner of his house. He wondered if the gutter was clogged with something. He thought of climbing out onto the small pitched roof under the window, but realized he was barefooted and without pants and had a terrible sense of balance. He craned his neck out the window and peered through the dark at the gutter and listened. Nothing. He looked at the trees, bare and black in the winter night. Could the trees be dripping? he thought. Of course not. It had not rained for a week. But as soon as he pulled his head back inside he heard it.
The phone rang. He sat back down on the edge of the bed. I should just let it ring, he thought. He glanced at the clock: 3: 03. “Oh Christ,” he said and picked up the phone and yelled into it, “What now?”
“I’m sorry for hanging up, Keller. I apologize,” said Spencer.
“Did you call and hang up before?”
“No,” said Spencer. “Well, yes. I thought Janice would answer. She said you never answer the phone. That she has to do it for you. I didn’t think I’d get you. Sorry. I’m just upset.”
“You’re upset? Are you joking?”
“I know Janice is mad, but I don’t know why. She’s–inscrutable.”
“If she won’t talk to me perhaps you could just ask her a question for me.”
“She is not here,” said Keller, “not here, not–”
“Could you ask her if she knows where Dante is?”
“Dante. My cat. He’s missing.”
“Why don’t you go to hell,” said Keller and hung up.
The cat. You should check your freezer, he thought. Cloudy plastic bags marked Head , Paws, Tail. He laughed and the sound of his laugh scared him. He turned on the lamp but nothing happened. He took off the lampshade and unscrewed the lightbulb from its socket. He shook the bulb by his ear and heard the filament rattle around inside. Dead, he thought. And then he thought, Inside. Maybe inside.
Keller got up and put his ear to the wall. Maybe that’s where it was coming from, inside the house itself, behind the old plaster, between the studs or the joists, trickling down from Christ knows where. But he heard nothing except for little clicks and clacks and barely audible scrapings and scratchings. The mice? he thought. Was Janice right after all?
“There are no fucking mice!” he said aloud. He looked down at the spent light bulb in his hand. He threw it hard, like he was pitching a fast ball to an invisible catcher crouched down in the dark. It hit the wall and shattered.
The phone rang. “No,” said Keller and rushed out of the bedroom and down the stairs to the kitchen. At least there, the light was working and it was warmer. He sat at the table and wondered why the bedroom had always been so cold. He thought about the furnace in the basement. The basement, he thought. Of course. The basement was full of things that could drip in one way or another. And sound carries in an old house, particularly in the silent night. He began to feel hopeful.
He walked down the rough wood stairs to the basement, feeling his way in the dark, then reaching out for the old overhead light he knew was there just at the base of the stairs, and pulled the chain. The light was dim and he reminded himself he needed to have better lighting put in when he could afford it. The basement was unfinished, a big dark place with bare concrete walls and cement floor. Pipes and wires of various sizes and lengths ran chaotically across the low ceiling of wood planks and joists. The dark underbelly of the house, thought Keller, the hard underbelly, where things go wrong and you don’t even know it. Keller felt the grit under his feet and wished he had put on shoes, or socks at least.
He went straight to the far corner and turned on the light near the furnace. It was a gas furnace, now 15 years old, which he’d had installed just after he and Janice moved in. He took off the metal facing and glanced at the furnace’s inner workings, not knowing what he was actually looking at. Inscrutable, he thought, yeah, inscrutable alright. But he could tell it was warm and dry, with no moisture and not a drip of any kind. He replaced the facing and felt along the concrete floor around the furnace for any wet spots. Nothing but dust. Dry dust.
He walked to the center of the basement, stood very still, and listened. He could hear something. The phone. The phone was ringing again. How could I hear the bedroom phone down here? he wondered. Then he remembered the phone in the living room. It was probably just overhead. He walked over to the washing machine and lifted the lid and the smell of bleach hit him in the nose. “Christ,” he said. I’m using too much bleach, he thought. Janice was a big believer in bleach. He closed the lid and looked behind the washer at the hoses and connections. Something red and limp, like a blood soaked rag, was draped on the lowest hose. Keller hesitated. He looked up at the ceiling and listened to the phone ringing. Then he bent over the washing machine, reached down, and grabbed the red cloth. It was not blood soaked and it was not a rag. It was a pair of red lace panties. Janice’s? he thought. He had never seen her in red panties. I should throw them out. The phone stopped ringing. He folded the panties carefully and put them on top of the washer.
Just as he reached the top of the basement stairs, he heard it.
But it definitely did not seem to be coming from below. He went to the stone fireplace in the living room. He moved the three-paneled metal fire screen aside, bent down and put his head in the fireplace. He could hear the wind whispering in the flue. He put his hand in the dry ashes.
The phone rang. Keller sat in the armchair by the fireplace and picked up the phone, but said nothing.
“Tell Janice I found Dante. He was under the bed all the time.”
“She’s not here.”
A pause. “Suppose I give you the benefit of the doubt. If Janice isn’t there, where is she?”
“Perhaps she’s with another man,” said Keller, quietly. “Have you ever seen her in red panties?”
“Red panties? No. What are you talking about?”
“She likes red panties. Or someone likes them on her.”
“You’d like to think she’s with another man, wouldn’t you?” said Spencer.
“Of course. What husband wouldn’t?”
“I am worried about her safety.”
“So use a condom. Use two.”
“You think you’re funny, Keller?”
“You think this is some kind of fucking joke? Are you and Janice having a big laugh over this? Cut the shit and put her on the phone, Keller–”
“Hold on,” said Keller. He put the phone down in his lap and began to cry. He pounded his bare leg with his fist. He wiped his eyes on the sleeve of his sweat shirt, took a deep breath and cleared his throat. He picked up the phone. “Janice doesn’t want to talk to you.”
“Let her tell me that.”
Keller put the phone down again for a minute. His leg hurt. Then he said, “She says it’s over and she doesn’t want to talk about it. Now leave us alone. Be a man, for Christ’s sake, Spencer. Not a mouse. Women don’t like mice.”
“Go fuck yourself, Keller–and fuck her.”
“I’ll do my best,” said Keller and hung up.
He got up and began to pace back and forth in front of the fireplace, then through the dinning room to the kitchen, then back again. “I’m wandering around like a ghost in my own house,” he said aloud and stopped. Like a ghost, he thought.
He climbed wearily back up the stairs to the bedroom. He pulled the sweatshirt over his head, dropped it on the floor, and got into bed. He glanced at the clock: 3:33. He was exhausted. I’ll be a fuckin’ corpse in the morning, he thought. He thought of Janice and for the first time actually wondered where she might be.
The phone rang. Keller let it ring. Never send to ask for whom the phone rings, he thought. He had read that somewhere a long time ago. Or perhaps he had seen it on TV. He picked up the phone.
“She’s home, Keller,” said Spencer.
“No she’s not.”
“I mean here. She was just–”
There was a pause and Keller could hear whispering.
“How could you do that?” It was Janice.
“I didn’t do anything,” said Keller.
“You told him I was with another man.”
“And then you told him I was with you. With you, of all people.”
“I just wanted him to leave us alone,” Keller whispered.
“Listen to me,” said Janice. “Are you listening? Because these are the last words you’re ever going to hear from me.”
“I hate you.”
She hung up.
Keller lay in bed staring up at the ceiling and listening. He had decided he was not going to work tomorrow. He got out of bed, walked down the hall to the bathroom, and took two of the sleeping pills his doctor had been hesitant to prescribe for him. Then he took another two. Then two more. He put the little amber plastic bottle to his mouth and swallowed and swallowed, helping the pills along with his tongue, until the bottle was empty. He took a long drink of cold water.
He slipped off his shorts and went naked to bed and pulled the blankets over him. He watched the blue numerals on the clock blur and meld together into a number he had never seen before. He was floating on a lake of black ice. Little by little, drop by drop, the ice melted, and fell a long, long way and he fell, drop by drop, with it.
About the AuthorPaul Negri is the former president and publisher of Dover Publications, Inc. and the editor of a dozen anthologies of short stories and poetry published by Dover. He was born and raised in Brooklyn and graduated with an M.A. in English from Long Island University. In 2011 he was awarded second place for a novella in the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Writing Competition. He lives in Clifton, New Jersey, where he reads, writes and abuses the piano.