9.9 / September 2014

Pipe Hugger

Sheila knows the uniform will be degrading—the sparkly pink leg warmers and the sequined earmuffs and not a stitch more. She knows the work hours will be long and boring and lonely and cold. But she needs a job. The guys over at the used car lot—the last steady job she’s been able to get a hold of in her tiny town—let her go three weeks ago. She is living off of ramen and cucumbers. When she meets her girlfriends at Val’s for Tuesday night drinks, she knows that this is the last happy hour margarita she will be able to afford.

“I’m taking a job at Pipe Huggers,” she tells the girls, raising her glass high in the air in a salute to nothing. In a salute to how pathetic her confession is. How her friends will roll their eyes or give her a sad, baffled look. Sheila and her friends have been making fun of the girls who are desperate enough to work at Pipe Huggers for years. They are true floozies, those girls. Desperate and mean.

But Sheila’s friends seem genuinely supportive. “A job’s a job, right?” Maryanne says. “This winter has been brutally cold. The pay will be fantastic,” Bethanne says. “Besides, you’ll look killer in those legwarmers,” Suanne says, “Who cares what anyone thinks.” After Sheila has licked the salt from the rim of her empty glass, her friends treat her to two more rounds. She walks home from the bar with a solid buzz, her chapped lips stinging from the cold and the salt.

These are the type of men who call in a girl from Pipe Huggers: Big-bellied. Married for at least a decade, with a couple scruffy kids. Gruff. Bored. Dim-witted. Lazy. Loud and careless. When Sheila goes in to pick up her leg warmers and earmuffs, she expects to see such men at headquarters, pressed behind a huge desk bossing all the female employees around. But it is a woman at the front desk. And it is a woman in the back office, perched on a magenta pink swivel chair, eyeing Sheila like a hungry hawk.

“You’ll do just fine,” the woman says, pushing a pink, plastic-wrapped bundle across the shiny desk toward Sheila. The nameplate on the woman’s desk reads SAMANTHA ☺.

“Isn’t there some kind of training?” Sheila asks.

“Training?” SAMANTHA ☺ looks as if she might laugh. “You just go to your assigned address, ask where the problem area is, and then hug a pipe. There’s a pamphlet in there with your legwarmers and earmuffs about frost bite and hypothermia,” SAMANTHA ☺ says. “We had to update some of the protocols after a couple girls got careless last season. It’s self-explanatory, really.”

“Okay,” Sheila says. “That’s it?”

“That’s it.” SAMANTHA ☺ gives a little wave of dismissal with her long, pink fingernails. “Oh, and the pneumonia seems to be a thing this season,” she adds, just as Sheila is about to slip out the door. “If you notice something, I don’t know, a rattle in the chest, I guess, wheezing or something, then call it in to the employee physician.”

“Okay,” Sheila says.

“We can’t have you girls dropping like flies,” SAMANTHA ☺ says. “Just because of, you know, a little cold. The company can’t afford any more logged complaints or petty lawsuits.”

“Sure thing,” Sheila says, bowing out of the room like an obedient child.

Sheila hasn’t been naked in front of someone else in a very long time. In college, she’d wrestle her underwear, bra, and clothes on while wrapped up in her big, fluffy robe. Her roommate would return from the shower and walk around their tight little room completely naked, languidly searching through drawers for knee-high socks and turtlenecks and tight little sweaters while beads of water cascaded down every part of her. And there Sheila was, pressed into the corner near her rickety desk, contorting herself into her clothing within the confines of that smothering robe.

Sheila’s body is just fine. Something many other women would covet, probably, if only she would allow herself to think about it in that way. She doesn’t date often. She’s only had two solid relationships since college. Even then, the men never really got a chance to see her. She was naked in the dark only, a warm body that they could feel and feel and feel and never quite know.

Sheila’s first address is 229 North Marvin Street. She expects a Marvin to answer the door, big-bellied and mean and foul-mouthed. The assignment sheet that the woman at the front desk gave her says, Duration of project: unknown. Sheila could be hugging this pipe for days. The cold this morning is sharp and dry and brittle. Sheila has the defrost and the heat on full-blast, but her windshield is still coated in a defiant skim of frost when she pulls in front of 229 North Marvin Street. The rule is this: Pipe Hugger girls are not allowed to wear anything but the leg warmers, the ear muffs, and a coat (which must be removed upon arrival at a job). Sheila supposes she should be wearing a trench coat, to fit with those movies where the girl shows up in a trench coat with nothing beneath it. But she doesn’t own a trench coat, and the weather is too freezing for that. She’s wearing her huge, hunter-orange puffball of a coat (authentic down, a red-lined item at Macy’s last spring because no one could stand the color) and she’s thankful for the warmth. She knocks on the door, shivering on the icy stoop. A clean-shaven man in a business suit swings the door open and waves her in immediately.

“You’ve got to be freezing,” he says.

There is no big belly. There are no meaty hands or squinting, devious eyes.

“Here,” the Marvin Street man says, let me take your coat.”

“Oh,” Sheila gulps. “No thanks? I’d like to take it off after you show me the pipe?”

The man looks at her sparkly pink leg warmers. He glances at her sequined earmuffs.

“You don’t have anything on beneath that coat, do you?” he asks.

Sheila waits for him to giggle. She waits for him to lick his lips and then guffaw, slapping at his thighs with the luck of it all.

“No?” she says.

“This is ridiculous,” the man says, so quietly she can barely hear. “I’m calling your office. This is inhumane. I’m filing a complaint. I won’t pay Pipe Huggers, but I can slip you some cash.”

“Oh no,” Sheila says. “That’s not it at all. This isn’t some kind of floozy thing, if that’s what you were thinking. I have to be naked.”

There is red pooling beneath the man’s cheeks, authentic anger.

“It’s about body heat,” Sheila explains. “I don’t quite get the mechanics of it all. They don’t do any kind of official training with us.”

“So you’re going to be naked, in my basement, hugging the frozen pipe,” the man says.

“It’s legit,” Sheila says. “Truly legit. But I’d like to take my coat off once I’m down there, situated with the pipe, you know?”

“Of course!”

The man is suddenly a fumbling idiot. His sweaty hand slips off the doorknob on the basement door, and he has to pull out the fly of his nice dress shirt and wipe it dry. He almost trips down the steep stairs. He fumbles around in the dark for hours, it seems, before he finally finds the light switch.

“So this is the pesky pipe,” he says, gesturing behind an old washing machine. “All frozen up,” he says. “About to burst, I’ll bet. I was going to wrap it up in some wool blankets or something, run a little heater, but I heard Pipe Huggers is the fastest. I heard you all are the best.”

He refuses to look at her.

“Okey dokey.”

“Can I get you anything?” he asks, his back to her as she slips out of her coat. “Some tea?” he asks as she somehow manages to twist herself up behind the washing machine.

“No thanks,” Sheila chirps, almost sneezing because of the film of spider web she’s inhaled through her left nostril.

“Well,” he shouts, already at the top of the basement stairs. “Off to work I go!”

Sheila hugs the pipe. And wouldn’t you know, the shock of the cold copper soon becomes a soothing balm, a sensation she never knew she’d been missing her entire life. She is okay. Thankful for the legwarmers and the earmuffs, of course, but perfectly okay.

The pay is excellent. And the jobs keep rolling in. Most of the pipes thaw out after only a few hours. But Sheila doesn’t mind the stubborn ones, the jobs that keep her huddled in a basement or a back utility room overnight. She begins to relish the gurgle of an ice block coming loose. She swears she can hear the shifting and rustling and crackling as tiny tectonic plates of ice shift, melting away like little stubborn glaciers.

And none of the customers are what she had expected. They don’t stare, googley-eyed, while she slips out of her coat. They don’t try to touch her or make jokes. If they stick around at all, it’s to chat about thermodynamics and temperature gradients and conduction and convection and spray foam insulation and all the boring things Sheila has never been interested in herself. She nods politely and pretends to understand it all, waiting for them to leave her alone with the pipe.

Sheila loves the cast iron pipes that run down from vertical drains and vent stacks. She loves the thinnest of rigid copper piping and she loves a thick, strong galvanized steel pipe. Even plastic PBC and AVS. She loves them all. The newer cross-linked polyethylene pipes are a rarity in the old houses that stud her little town, and Sheila gets giddy when she comes across it in the homes of the lawyers and physicians who have been able to afford complete gutting and remodeling. These new pipes shouldn’t be freezing. But this winter is the most bitter and gut-wrenching on record. Business is booming. All the girls at Pipe Huggers are working overtime, huddled in basements and utility closets throughout this town and even in several of the neighboring counties. Sheila has only run into a few of the other girls while dropping by headquarters for new assignments. There has been, of course, the type that Sheila and her girlfriends used to glare at and whisper about at the bar—big hair, spiky mascara, a screw-you-don’t-you-dare-look-at-me-or-talk-to-me-or-even-think-about-it-whatever-it-is glare. But there are also other types of girls working for Pipe Huggers now. Big girls and older girls and pale, wormy-looking girls. Sheila ran into Betty Harper at the front desk just the other day, her science lab partner in the 8th grade. Betty still looked exactly the same—thin arms and big teeth and a sunken chest. “Fancy seeing you here,” Betty said, trying to sound nonchalant. But it came out in a nervous, desperate squeak. Sheila just couldn’t picture it—Betty slipping out of her ratty coat and hugging a frozen pipe close to her translucent, bruise-colored skin.

It is the coldest day yet, and Sheila gets an assignment for Rawthorne Avenue, the seediest street in town. Rawthorne Avenue is the stuff of legends. When Sheila was growing up, the kids who had never set foot on Rawthorne Avenue spun stories of gun battles and meth lab explosions and three-headed dogs. The kids who lived on Rawthorne Avenue rode Sheila’s bus. They had round, sad faces and didn’t say a word when kids sitting right next to them would start telling wild Rawthorne Avenue tales. Sheila wanted to poke those Rawthorne kids and make them say something. She felt horrible about it, but she wanted to poke at them until they said the stories were true or untrue, or at least until they gave a nod or shook their heads just barely.

The sidewalks are not shoveled and salted on Rawthorne Avenue. Sheila picks her way along a path that has been tramped down in the dirty snow and then climbs up the rotting porch steps. No sound registers when she rings the doorbell, and so she knocks.

“Well sir-ee.”

The man at the front door says this through the frost-pocked glass of the storm door, eyeing her for a long while before letting her in. The house smells like pancakes and dog piss. It is not full of cheery warmth.

“We’ve got some doozies for you,” the man says, rubbing his big hands along the front of his big belly. “Doozies, indeed,” he says, his voice suddenly gruff.

“Just point me in the right direction,” Sheila says. She sees something scurry out of the corner of her eye. Could be a rat or a dog or a kid. She’s too cold and nervous to tell what is what right now.

The man leads her to the basement door. “Ladies first,” he insists, and she can feel his eyes trying to rip through the puffy blob of her coat as she descends the steps.

“We’ve got three of ‘em that need love and care,” he says. “Let’s start with this one.” He gestures to a corroded looking pipe in a dank corner, behind the water heater.

“Okey dokey,” Sheila says.

The man makes no move for the stairs.

“I’ll get it thawed out in no time,” Sheila says.

“I bet you will.”

He keeps standing there.

Sheila doesn’t want to panic. She doesn’t want to think about her old Uncle Herbert’s old hands and old breath or her naked, bold college roommate or that one time in the locker room, sixth grade. And so she tries to think of strange things. She thinks of unicorns and solar eclipses. She thinks of webbed feet and male gymnasts. She starts to unzip her coat, thinking of platypuses and chia pets. He watches her. Her coat falls to the floor. She hugs the pipe behind the water heater, trying to keep her mind on mermaids and park benches made out of recycled grocery bags. Anything to keep her from thinking about this man standing in the dim basement light, watching her. She thinks about the word floozy and the Pipe Hugger girls with big hair and angry eyes. She thinks about three-headed dogs and the round, sad faces of the Rawthorne Avenue kids who rode her bus, staring out the dirty windows like lost pets.

Sheila isn’t left alone much during this particular job. The man comes down often and stands next to a pile of sodden cardboard boxes, watching her. He turns the light off when he leaves. Sometimes she can sense him standing at the top of the steps, peering down into the darkness. The first pipe is a stubborn one, and it takes several hours to thaw. He brings her down a glass of tap water that tastes like mud. He brings her down a peanut butter sandwich and watches her eat it. He touches her shoulder then, while her mouth is full.

His wife comes down when Sheila is on the second pipe. It’s an awkward one, nestled up near the ceiling, and Sheila had to perch on a cement block window ledge to get wrapped around it. The wife looks up at her, an empty laundry basket squashed against her hip. “I like the legwarmers,” she says.

“Thanks,” Sheila says. She thinks she must look like a squirrel holding onto a tree branch for dear life.

“I don’t know how we’ll ever be able to afford this,” the wife says.

“I’m doing my best to be fast,” Sheila says.

“I’m sure you are.”

The wife gives Sheila a long, wistful look. “Those leg warmers really are nice, aren’t they?”

When Sheila is on the third pipe, he comes down with an old lawn chair and parks himself right in front of her. The cold bites into Sheila’s chest and thighs. It sings through her in a way that feels new.

“Just enjoying the show,” the man says, sagging in that old chair.

Sheila wills the chunk of ice in the pipe to thaw quickly. At the same time, she wills it to stay frozen there forever. She’s never felt so trapped and so certain and so free. A body can do amazing things. The man watches her. She’ll make enough money this winter to get her through the rest of the year comfortably. No more ramen and cucumbers. Several rounds of drinks on her at Val’s each and every Tuesday night.

Sheila hugs the pipe and listens for the opening of minute fissures, the shifting of invisible, impossible cities of ice. She wishes for one million years of winter, and for not caring if anyone sees.

Sarah Gerkensmeyer's story collection, What You Are Now Enjoying, won the Autumn House Press Fiction Prize, was longlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, and won Late Night Library's Debut-litzer. Her stories and poetry have appeared in American Short Fiction, Guernica, The Coffin Factory, The Massachusetts Review, Hayden's Ferry Review, B O D Y, Hobart, and Cream City Review, among others.
9.9 / September 2014