Sprinklers by Tom

By Romana Capek-Habekovic

From the dining room window, I watched an older, muddy truck turn into our circular driveway and park in front of the entrance. I rushed to the door, but when I opened it, no one was standing on the covered porch. The truck was still in the driveway.

“I think that the sprinkler guy arrived. Where did he go?” I called to my husband.

“I see him walking across the backyard with another fellow. I am sure that he will come in to talk to us,” he answered from the living room that looked out on our back lawn and the protected woodland. 

Ten minutes later, I met Tom and the young man that accompanied him. He was barely 5’6” high, overweight, with a large protruding stomach, and a face red as a tomato. When he shook my hand, I was surprised to notice his skin felt smooth and without the callouses that someone doing manual work normally would have. He introduced his companion as a helper who was also his son-in-law. The man’s physique resembled Tom’s. He matched him in height, was heavyset and red in the face. He only didn’t share Tom’s brown hair. His was ash blond. The similarities between them were so stark that he could have been mistaken for Tom’s son. He remained one step behind his father-in-law and did not shake my hand. He kept his course hands with dirt under his fingernails crossed below his belly.

“I am glad that you came because we are having sod put in next week. It will need watering twice a day. At least this is what our landscaper recommended,” I explained.

“Did Bruce give you my number?”

“Yes, he did. He highly recommended you.” 

I continued talking to Tom while my husband disappeared into the kitchen. This was not unusual because he believed that I am a better negotiator in hiring different tradesmen. This type of talk that mixes chatter with business has always bored him. 

Bruce described Tom as the best qualified sprinkler installer who would keep our lawn in tip-top condition. He also added that he was from Kentucky, had an eighth-grade education, and spoke with a southern drawl. 

“I will install your sprinkler system tomorrow. I walked around your property to calculate the number of heads I need.” His fee for the labor and material was reasonable, and I signed the contract he handed to me. 

The following morning both men arrived. I watched Tom’s son-in-law unloading from the truck cables, shovels, trench digger machine, sprinkler heads, and other materials and tools with which I was not familiar. Tom stood by giving him directions. He ordered the young man to dig trenches for cables, which was challenging, especially on the sloped backyard. The trench digger machine was heavy and difficult to maneuver through the clay soil. We watched him from the upper deck and heard his heavy breathing and occasional swear words. Tom, on the other hand, did the work that required the knowledge of the sprinkler systems. After having installed the buried heads and a switch board in the basement, he programed daily watering of the upcoming sod for a duration of one month and every other day afterwards. In case of rain, the sprinklers would automatically pause. The men finished their work in the late afternoon.

“Call me when the landscapers lay down the sod so that I can adjust the sprinkler heads and replace those that they might damage.”

Tom returned the day after the grass was laid on our front and backyard and turned on the sprinkler system. The buried heads sprang up and began scattering water while gyrating. 

“When should I call you for shutting off the sprinklers?”

“I usually do it at the end of October. Set up an appointment with my wife. She does bookings for our company.”

In the next twenty-two years, I learned about all happy and sad events in Tom’s life. He would tell me about them in April when he would activate our sprinklers and in October when he would winterize them. 

“Tom, what do you do during winter when the sprinkler season is over?” I asked him one time.

“We go to Florida inland. I built two houses there, one for my daughter and the other for my wife and me. I love it there. I go fishing in the channels every day.”

Whenever Tom would mention his daughter, his face would light up. She was his only child, a high school graduate who helped run the family business. He never talked about her husband except one time when he bitterly said that if he had not hired him, his son-in-law would be unemployed. I had a feeling that he wished his daughter had married somebody ambitious and industrious instead of that “good-for-nothing” man. It seemed that this was the main reason Tom bossed him around and forced him to do the most physically demanding work required in installing sprinklers. 

One April he came alone to open our irrigation system. He had lost a lot of weight, which made him almost unrecognizable.

“How are you, Tom? You look like a half of your usual self. What happened?”

“I had a heart attack in February, but I feel okay now. Doctors said that I needed to slim down. I cut portions I used to eat and don’t buy fast food anymore. I never drank or smoked cigarettes, so my eating habits were the main culprits.”

I found out in October the reason he worked alone.

“I fired that bum because he sided with my wife when she left me. She moved out of our house that I had built in Milford.”

“This must have been hard for you.”

“It was, but I am angrier than hurt by it. She has no idea that she cannot support herself.”

The following April was happier for Tom. His wife returned home, and he described the reasons that made her change her mind about being single again.

“Well, her car broke down, and she had no money to fix it. She was used to having a new car every other year because I bought it for her. She didn’t like to go to our cabin up north because the snow needed shoveling, and the fireplace called for logs that she couldn’t chop. My daughter and her husband stayed in their warm, rented condominium unwilling to help her. She begged me to take her back. Now everything is normal again, and she is grateful for the lifestyle I provide for her.”

“I am glad to hear that your marriage is back on the right track.” 

A year later, Tom and I exchanged photos of our first grandchildren, chubby little girls. We both were beaming with pride. However, his family bliss did not last long. He and his son-in-law had a falling out and his daughter sided with her husband. They forbade him to see his granddaughter. Not being able to visit the little one devastated him. He was looking forward to taking her fishing in Florida and partaking in her growing up. His daughter and son-in-law stopped working for him. His wife continued answering customers’ questions and making appointments on their company’s phone. 

“They allow my wife to babysit, but I cannot even attend my granddaughter’s birthdays,” he said angrily. It was clear that this was the most hurtful thing that his family ever put him through. 

The last time I saw Tom was in April of 2016, three months before we sold our home and moved to Grand Rapids to be close to our grandchildren. I left his contact number for the new owner together with a glorifying reference. Tom deserved every single word of praise I wrote. 

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Romana Capek-Habekovic was born in Zagreb, Croatia, and received her BA at the University of Zagreb. She earned a PhD in Italian literature from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where she taught language, literature, and culture courses. She published college level textbooks Insieme and A vicenda (McGraw-Hill), Parola a te! (Heinle Cengage Learning), and her book on Italian culinary traditions, In cucina! is forthcoming (Hackett). Her articles on twentieth-century Italian authors have been published in many scholarly publications. Along with her academic career, she continued to write fiction and non-fiction. Her stories appeared in New Reader Magazine, Passager, EveryWriter, Fauxmoir, and in The Common Dispatches. She is in a process of finishing her second short story collection. Her other interests include hiking, swimming, and she is an enthusiastic cook. 

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