The plumber had been hired to exorcise the house of its ghosts. He parked his van on the side of the street and looked up at the house, all weathered gray wood, balconies, and wrap-around porches. It had been a bar once, before it had been sold as a house and the haunting had started. He grabbed a flat metal toolbox and began walking up the hill.
On the phone earlier, the owner had told the plumber that she'd already called a priest, an exterminator, and a weatherman, but none of them could get rid of the ghosts. The plumber had said that he could always take a look.
It was morning, and bees lifted and sank into the thick green, the plumber's thin legs swishing through stalks of grass. Dandelions broke into yellow, bobbing in the wind, and dust of pollen and grass seed coated the world. The plumber was a wire of a man with a sagging black mustache, tired eyes, and a bent back. His right hand was always twisting, working a wrench that wasn't there. The sun was full above him, warming his arms. He smiled at the clump of irises growing by the door and felt good about things.
The door was unlocked, and he went through the dark foyer, stopping just inside the living room. He stood quietly for a long time and did not breathe, listening to the soft flutter of newspapers. Across couches, chairs, and scattered barstools—in the wide space that had once been the main room of the bar—some thirty ghosts read newspapers and drank coffee in the pale light coming in through the windows. Their flesh was fish-like, silvery and wet, and they stank of sour beer. They wore flannel shirts and some wore hats, and they blinked their big eyes and traded papers and magazines occasionally. When the plumber walked in, the ghosts all looked up at him for a moment, then went back to their coffee and reading.
The plumber fixed himself a cup of coffee. On the bar, three coffee pots, overlapping coffee rings, empty packets of creamer, and one very dirty spoon. "Well, you all probably know why I'm here," he told them.
The ghosts watched him, but said nothing.
"We should get to know each other first. I'm Henry. What do you want to know? Ask me anything."
The ghosts steamed from their mouths and ears, their voices squealing like kettles. One of them put its arm around the Henry.
"You got a girlfriend, sugar?" the ghost asked.
The other ghosts shook their heads. "That's bar talk," one said. "This isn't the place for that anymore."
Henry laughed and pulled at his plumber's collar. "It's complicated."
"Do you watch baseball?" one asked.
"Sometimes I do."
The ghosts nudged one another. Finally they were getting somewhere.
The ghost said, "I like Little League games, myself. Do you have kids who play?"
Another nodded. "Now that's more appropriate."
The plumber started to speak, but he didn't know what to say. "Maybe I should just get started," he said.
He downed his coffee and walked upstairs to look at the rest of the house.
The ghosts watched the plumber leave the room and wondered what they had done wrong. They remembered a time when the bar had been full of people and no one noticed them standing on the edges of the room, finishing off empty bottles, sucking in the cigarette smoke and the music, collecting beads of moisture from tables and floors and lips. They had pulled used napkins out of trash bins, unfolded them in their hands, and read what was inside: lipstick prints, names and phone numbers, food stains, scraps of poems or architectural diagrams, dirty drawings. These they had tucked inside their coats to fill where their hearts had been. That was a long time ago.
The plumber made his way through the house, wandering into bathrooms and kitchens, testing every faucet he saw. He wasn't happy with what he'd found. There was almost no water pressure, and the upstairs sink didn't work. When he turned on the downstairs shower, instead of water, the sound of a neighbor's television poured out: buzzing, applause, the crisp-voiced announcer. Henry stared into the spout in wonder. Things were much worse than ghosts.
He pulled back boards so that he could get in behind the shower to find out what had gone so wrong, when three ghosts came into the bathroom.
"What are you doing?" they asked. "Aren't you going to try to make us leave?"
Henry pointed at the shower-head, strange sounds coming from it. "Someone is watching Wheel of Fortune," he said. He found a nest of coaxial cable all mixed up in the plumbing and went outside to follow it. The ghosts watched him from the windows.
The plumber walked across the yard and rang the neighbor's doorbell. He spoke to the woman who answered briefly, then moved down to the next house and did the same. House after house, asking each person, "Are you watching Wheel of Fortune reruns this morning?"
An hour later, Henry came back from the neighbors, his clothes damp and dirty. The ghosts handed him a fresh cup of coffee at the door, and he thanked them.
"I don't understand how things got so bad," he said.
"We're sorry," said one of the ghosts.
Henry's hand was twitching. "No. The plumbing. The neighbor told me that every weekday at six, if she turned to channel 3, water would come pouring out of her television. It's been that way for ten years."
Henry carried his toolbox into the kitchens and bathrooms, working on the plumbing until it was dark. The whole time, the ghosts crowded around him and asked questions.
"You ever been married?" a ghost asked.
The plumber frowned and asked for his pipe-wrench. "Everything under here needs to be replaced."
A ghost handed the wrench to him. "Do you live in town?"
The plumber told the ghost to hand him a roll of stiff cable which he began using to snake out the drain. "Nasty clog down there."
Henry fixed the plumbing as best he could, his clothes damp and smelling of drains, and went back out to his van. It was dark out, the lit windows filled with a cluster of ghosts watching him. He got a six-pack of beer out of an ice-chest in his van--what he always did after a job--and took it inside. He sat down on the sofa, all the ghosts gathered around him and staring at the six cans in his lap.
"I've been thinking about adopting a little girl from China," a ghost said. "I've always wanted a daughter."
The plumber sighed. "I have to find a way to get rid of you." He popped open one of the cans.
The ghosts felt the fumes of beer rise in the room, molecules of alcohol dispersing in the air and striking their silvery skin like hammers. They remembered how the bar had been before, the crowds of people, the whiskey smell that hung in the air, the things they used to find on the floor or forgotten in bathroom stalls to show one another, everything they had lost.
The nearest three ghosts grabbed the edge of the can--the plumber hanging tight to it--and pushed their way inside the tiny mouth. Their clothes, newspapers, and coffee cups fell in a heap by the couch, and they were gone. They had lost themselves in a sea of cheap beer, their silvery bodies dissolving into the liquid. The can felt heavier in Henry's hand. He drank it, the cold burning his throat. He opened another.
Again, the ghosts closest to him shoved their way inside. The plumber drank slowly, the metal edge of the can stinging his lip. He went on like this until he was a little drunk and all the ghosts were gone. They filled his belly and moved through his blood, circulating mournfully through his brain. He began to remember all the mistakes he'd made: clogs only partially removed, leaky sinks he'd given up on, illegitimate children he'd fathered all over town and never visited. He was ashamed of everything he had done.
That night, drunk and body heavy with the cold weight of ghosts, the plumber climbed back into his van and drove from house to house. He went to moonlit doorways where he'd had final kisses, the dark landings where he'd taken his last times and last last times. He beat on the doors of old lovers and demanded to be let inside so that he could fix things the way a plumber ought to.
They let him in, seeing ghosts in his eyes. Henry pulled out clogs of hair he'd given up on and fixed faucets that had been dribbling for years. The women and their husbands watched him with bleary eyes, not understanding his slurred words or the clumps of drain-filth he held up to them. He went into the bedrooms of his forgotten children, took them from their beds, and lined them up in the backseat of his van, one after another.
BIO: Micah Dean Hicks is an author of fables, modern fairy tales, and other kinds of magical stories. His work is published or forthcoming in over thirty magazines, including Indiana Review, Cream City Review, and SmokeLong Quarterly. His short story collection, Electricity and Other Dreams, is forthcoming from New American Press in early 2013. He lives and teaches in Tallahassee, Florida.