Maggie stood in the kitchen looking at the water bill in astonishment. $5,000 dollars? Were they kidding? She looked at the usage. Half a million gallons? That was the size of a lake. A pretty big lake.
“That’s insane,” she muttered. “I couldn’t use that much water in twenty years, much less in 6 months. This is obviously a mistake.”
She scanned the bill for the customer service number, found it, and bill in hand, walked up to the office, picked up the phone and dialed the number. After maneuvering her way through a maze of voice mail menu items and waiting to get a live human being on the line … a total of 15 aggravating minutes … a non-recorded human voice came on the line. ” Long Island Water Resources, may I help you?”
“I certainly hope so,” Maggie responded. “I have this water bill for $5,000 and there has GOT to be a mistake. I couldn’t use half a million gallons of water in a decade.”
“May I have your account number please?”
Maggie read off the number and waited while the computer brought up the file. “Well, ma’am,” said the disembodied person on the line, “according to our meter reading, that’s your usage.”
“It’s impossible,” Maggie said.
“Well, ma’am, that’s what the meter reads.”
Maggie mentally counted to ten and took a deep breath. “May I speak with your supervisor, please?”
“Certainly. If you’ll wait just a moment, I’ll put you through.”
Over the course of the last few years, Maggie had become an expert at dealing with bureaucrats. One of her prime rules was “when in doubt, go up a step in the hierarchy.” On the other end of the phone, music was now playing. She was back on hold.
The last couple of years, nursing her dying husband had given her a kind of dogged determination. She would straighten this out, however long it took. She hoped, though, it wouldn’t take too long.
She drummed her fingers on the desk, waiting for a voice to come on the line. The music on the line changed from classic rock to country, then to a Broadway ballad. Still she waited. Finally, a voice came on the line. “This is George Connor. May I help you?”
“If you are a supervisor at Long Island Water Authority, then maybe you can,” she said.
“You’ve got the right guy. To whom am I speaking?”
“I’m Maggie Sterling. I opened my mail this morning and discovered that — according to your company — I used half a million gallons of water over the past six months and owe you $5,000.”
“Well, did you?”
“That’s absurd. I have a 60 by 100 plot of land and a house with one bathroom. I live alone, unless you count the cats, who, I should add, rarely bathe and never turn on the faucets. There’s clearly some kind of issue which needs to be tracked down. I have low water use toilets, make sure that the pipes and taps don’t leak, and take showers rather than baths. In my entire life I will never use this much water.”
“May I have your account number?” he asked.
Patiently, Maggie read off number again and waited while he brought her account up on the computer.
“I see what you mean,” he said. “You’d have to fill and empty a couple of swimming pools a week to use that much water. There could be a number of possible explanations for this. I think we’ll have to start by sending out a field engineer to look around.”
“What do I do about the bill?”
“I will put a freeze on your account for now, so you won’t be considered overdue. We can schedule an engineer to come out tomorrow. Can you be home between 8:00 am till 4:00 in the afternoon?”
“Do I have a choice?” she asked. She’d taken so much time off during the past few couple of years, one more day would scarcely matter.
Hanging up the phone, she tacked the bill onto the cork board behind the desk. She leaned back in the chair and looked around the room. So many memories. Before Jon had gotten sick, this had been his “lair,” the room in which he kept his old typewriter, books, racks of pipes. He came up here to write, smoke a pipe, think, escape.
He had been such a private person. Even after he and Maggie were married, they’d had separate bedrooms. Mostly, they’d slept together in one or the other, but sometimes, he needed to be alone.
Maggie had known from the beginning of her relationship that he wasn’t in good health. She knew he’d had a heart attack in his 30s. He needed daily medication which he took sometimes. He was supposed to be careful of his diet and wasn’t supposed to smoke at all. He ate whatever he wanted and while he didn’t smoke cigarettes, even the pipe was forbidden. But he did what he did. He wasn’t supposed to drink, but he drank more than a little. He was supposed to exercise but was allergic to exercise. He was 18 years older than Maggie, having turned 45 the day after she turned 27 and he often seemed even older than he was. He aged fast.
Flaws and all, she loved him. He was charming, witty, and unique. He knew something about everything and a lot about some stuff. He made her laugh, made her think, helped her become herself.
Then, she helped him die.
And now, there was a water bill. A $5,000 water bill. Maybe tomorrow would bring a million dollar electric bill. The excitement, Maggie thought, never ends.