The Sound of Running Water

With his retirement, Morgan Graham, along with his wife Beverly, decided to downsize. They sold the old Victorian that had been their home in the suburbs for the past 23 years and bought a smaller ranch house in a quiet neighborhood outside of Mashpee, on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Built back in the mid-eighties, however, it needed some updating. The list included updating the master bath, re-organizing all four closets, remodeling the kitchen, re-finishing an already finished basement, and adding a family room.

“Why call it a family room?” Morgan joked one day. “We don’t have family.” Beverly was inclined to agree. She and Morgan bore no children and neither had living parents; Morgan had no siblings, and Beverly’s only relative was a younger brother who lived out on the West Coast. “Better we should be calling it a den?” she said.

When contractors began work on the new house, Morgan and Beverly embarked on a long-planned, two-week Caribbean cruise. At the end of which, they took a third week to visit her brother in LA.

When they returned in mid-November, jet-lagged and exhausted, the renovations were all but complete: just a couple of touch-ups here and there, some re-furnishing to think about, and perhaps some time to reorient themselves to their new surroundings. But it was after six and dark already when they walked in. Knowing they wouldn’t get much done tonight, they unpacked a few things and went to bed early. Both were asleep by eight-thirty.

At 1:30 in the morning, Morgan wakes, rises from the bed, and pads over to the master bath for his nightly pee. After his stiff legs and an aching back––both from handling the luggage back at the airport, no doubt––ferry him back to bed, he lies down and listens for the tank to fill up. It’s a habit he picked up at the old house, where the water didn’t always shut off, and he’d have to get up again, go and jiggle the handle to make it stop. This time, though, it does shut off. As it should. It’s new, after all. Content that it’s safe now to go back to sleep, Morgan turns over and nestles in.

There’s a sound, a kind of whirring, no, not a whirring, a rushing sound, like water passing through a pipe. But what pipe? What water? He steps out from the bed again and goes back to check on the toilet. Quiet in there. He stands listening for it again. Not hearing it anymore, he shrugs and returns to bed.

The moment he lies down, he hears it again, faint, distant, practically non-existent. He sits up and looks around. Damn if it isn’t gone already. But that’s crazy. How can he hear something lying down and not hear it sitting up?

He lies back down, hears it again, props up on his elbows and whispers to his wife, her form barely visible in the light from his bedside clock. “Bev, you awake? Bev…Bev. Wake up.”

She stirs. “Wha’, what is it?” Her voice is thick with sleep.

“You hear that?”

“Hear what?”

He lies down facing her. “There, that sound.”

“What sound?” she moans.

“It’s like water running somewhere. You don’t hear that?”

“I don’t hear anything. Go back to sleep.” She turns away from him.

“You don’t hear it?”

“No. Go back to sleep. I’m tired.” She pulls the duvet up and over her shoulders. 

But there’s no way he’s able to sleep knowing there’s water running somewhere. At the very least, it’s a waste of a natural resource, and, at worst, some part of the house could be flooding. And why is he only hearing it when lying down? That’s the strangest part.

This never happened back at the old house. But then again, that house was a hundred years old and generated so many sounds and bumps in the night he’d simply gotten used to them all. While they lived outside the city, the house stood near a busy intersection, so there was always traffic noise. Even in the middle of the night, he’d hear a car or two pass by, and at least one with its radio turned up loud, a thumping, pulsating bass beat pounding through walls and windows of their bedroom. Occasionally, he’d hear a motorcycle roar into a downshift as it arrived at the red light, its motor revving repeatedly to keep from stalling. Then, with the green light, he’d hear it explode like a thunderclap as it sped away. At that hour, with no other sound around, he could track it, hear it shift through its numerous gears, taking the turn onto Mountain View Road, and after that, entering the on-ramp to the interstate where it’d really open-up before finally diminishing. After that, Hallie, the dog next door, would start one of her middle-of-the-night conversations with Luthor, the dog down the street that would go on for twenty minutes, or more. And there was the nightly, four-in-the-morning fire truck run from the engine house up the street. It had to have been a training exercise of some kind. Like the motorcycle, he’d hear it downshift when coming to the light and make the turn onto Elm without stopping. No siren. No emergency, just the sound of its motor and the accompanying lightshow of colors that flooded the bedroom as it passed beneath the windows. And through all this, Bev would remain asleep. He envied her talent for sleeping. She could sleep through anything.

As he, too, should be, asleep, here, in this quiet, wooded enclave in the middle of the Upper Cape. A private road with the nearest house standing no closer than a hundred yards away, he shouldn’t hear anything beyond a chorus of songbirds in the morning, a wayward seagull calling during the day, and maybe the occasional single prop plane as it passes overhead. A chilly night in November like this, with all the windows closed and no wind rustling the trees outside, he shouldn’t hear anything.

But for that plumbing somewhere that simply won’t shut off.

Up again. He finds his slippers, slips into his robe, and leaves the bedroom to investigate. It would be easy if they had a boiler in the basement, pumping hot water through radiators like they had back at the old house. He was used to that sound. But here it’s a gas furnace blowing hot air through vents in all the rooms, so that’s not it.

He starts with the guest bathroom down the hall, which, unlike the master bath in the bedroom, has yet to be updated. Morgan sees little point in it, given that the previous owners had some repairs down to it before selling. He opens the door and steps inside. All quiet in here. Still, Bev is determined to have more work done to it this spring: a new tub, toilet, sink with matching fixtures, new tiles on the floor, and a new, larger window put in. Morgan thinks it’s just an excuse to go on another vacation while the work is being done. Bev is dead set on spending their golden years traveling. He believes retirement should be about rest and relaxation.

Next stop: the kitchen––that is the new and improved kitchen. Only Bev is not completely thrilled with the way it turned out. The layout’s not right, she says. There’s no flow and not enough open space. But she did approve the drawings before the work began, so, thankfully, she’s not making too much of a fuss over it. Still, she’s making no secret of the fact she’s not satisfied.

Navigating around the stove top island in the dim, green glow of the digital clock atop the wall oven, Morgan comes to the sink below the garden window and holds his hand under the faucet. He checks the cabinet beneath and feels the front of the dishwasher. No, it’s all steady, quiet, and dry in here. He opens the door to the half bath to the right of the fridge. Quiet in there as well.

Why would someone want a bathroom off the kitchen? It’s like opposite ends of a magnet: positive, negative. The previous owners had it put in, so it was there when they bought the place. Morgan lobbied to have it converted to a walk-in pantry or closet, but there was already a pantry and a closet, and the contractor said, “You don’t want to lose a bathroom. Even if it’s a half bath. It reduces the resale value.” But what if we don’t plan to resell? Morgan wanted to tell him. Still, Bev sided with the contractor, and it got updated along with the rest of the kitchen.

Last place to check: the utility room in the basement.

For some inexplicable reason, every time he opens the door to the utility room the furnace kicks on. Even if it had been on and then off before opening the door, it still kicks in, like a soldier snapping to attention anytime an officer enters a room. Well, if there’s water running down here somewhere, he won’t hear it with this racket going on. Amazingly, it’s only loud when standing in front of it and quiet everywhere else. Some decent soundproofing built into the floor and walls. He waits for the sound to shut off. No sense in leaving until he’s sure. When it does shut off, it’s like the neighbor they had living next to them back at the old place, the one who was always mowing his lawn: when he turned the mower off, the ensuing silence was deafening.

In the silence, there’s no sound of running water, either.

Having failed to find whatever the source of that sound is––or was, for he’s not hearing it now––Morgan returns to bed, lies back down, and hears it again. Faint, distant, steady, and persistent. Like so many things in life, will this be one more he’ll have to learn to get used to?

He rolls to his left and studies the dark undulant mound that is his wife asleep under the covers. How like a machine she is: capable of switching her mind on and off at will. Why can’t he do that? Thank God, she doesn’t snore.

He turns onto his right side, facing the digital clock that sits on his bedside table and reads 2:00 a.m. Morgan is still wide awake.

You should just get rid of it, Bev has often complained `about Morgan’s clock.

But why would I want to do that? he thinks. It keeps perfect time.

You could try selling it as an antique.

Perhaps, but he doesn’t think he’d get much for it.

Then throw it in the trash and buy yourself a new one.

Morgan could never do that. In a sense, his Sony Digimatic Radio Alarm Clock is an antique. His father bought it for him brand new back in the late sixties, when Morgan entered his freshman year in college. He’d named him “Old Mr. Reliable,” because it never failed to wake him on time, whatever time he’d set for it. Truly dependable Sony technology that they stopped making a long time ago. No computer chip, no LEDs, just numbered cards that mechanically flip into place, lit by a simple, single filament bulb inside that has yet to burn out. Strictly analogue.

But what’s made Mr. Reliable so special to him is the radio that lives inside. His one true allegiant that’s kept him informed, entertained and, above all else, company throughout his college and graduate years, and years of living and working in the city. Even when Bev entered his life, and they shared his apartment in Boston, both had relied on its steadfast reports of news, weather, and traffic, before starting their day. And now she wants to discard him like an old coat?

Thinking about this, and watching the numbers flip from 2:03 to 2:04, Morgan notices the tuner light is on as well. That shouldn’t be unless…he reaches over, turns up the volume, and hears static.

That’s it! That’s the sound he’s been hearing all night. Somehow, in some way, the radio got turned on with the volume down low, and the tuner nudged off its WBZ setting so it wasn’t picking up anything, except static. Good old-fashioned static! He never imagined static could be so pleasing.

Morgan turns the volume back to low, to what it had been before, so he could just barely hear it. Relaxed now, he settles back into his pillow again and closes his eyes.

Photo by Zhu Liang on Unsplash

CategoriesShort Fiction
Marc Olivere

For two decades, Marc served as Production Manager/Technical Director for Boston Playwrights’ Theater, a professional venue founded by Derek Walcott, serving the graduate MFA Playwriting program at Boston University. His short fiction has appeared in Writing Tomorrow Magazine, and Belle Ombre Magazine. He currently lives on Cape Cod in Massachusetts.