Fiction by Jenny Steele
Omar Sibelius was a slight man with ink black hair and pale blue eyes. His
father had been a Finn, his mother a Turk; they had met and married in Lisbon,
then emigrated to the U.S., to Phoenix, Arizona. They had seemed worldly
(hadn’t his father claimed blood kinship with the famous Finnish composer?,
hadn’t his mother flirted with sultans?), but once in Phoenix, their exoticness
faded. They had one child, one American boy; they fought over what to name
him: John?, Robert?, Richard? But they settled on Omar, a nod to his mother’s
ancestry that had been so quickly blurred in a culture of supermarkets and
rockets to the moon (she had rolled up her one Turkish carpet: the neighbors had
been looking at it funny).
Omar had a typical and good childhood: Boy Scouts, Little League. If he
had a tantrum, his father blamed his Turkish blood; if he pouted, his mother
blamed the Finn in him. At twelve, Omar found a balance, neither Turk heat nor
Finn coolness, but an all-American tepidness; this carried him into adulthood and
Vo-Tech school and to a beautiful girl named Alma Sanchez. Alma taught
kindergarten and though she had true talent with kids, she wanted only one
herself. This is smart, Omar thought; we have modest salaries. A son was
born to them: Steven Sanchez Sibelius.
Omar had become a plumber; he had always been skilled at fixing things and
plumbing seemed a stable profession. He became a valued employee of Valley
Plumbing and had numerous plaques to prove it. But all was not perfect: his son,
who was suddenly twenty, suddenly twenty-five, frowned at his hard work.
“You lack ambition, Dad.” This was a frequent reproach.
“I work. I come home. I like what I like. I know myself. I’m satisfied.”
This was impolite, but Omar didn’t point this out. He had failed to convince
Steven of the benefit of manners, how good manners impressed people. Hadn’t
he taught Steven to say please and thank you, to avoid vulgar language, to be
respectful? Hadn’t he tried to raise Steven correctly after Alma’s death? But in
this hasty century, any manners had eroded and Steven had become flippant and
rude. “There’s no time now, Dad. Manners take time nobody has.”
Omar had been to six houses today; he fixed a kitchen faucet and several
toilets and he unclogged a bathtub drain. Customers shared their plumbing woes
(“We’ve had to jiggle that handle all week!”), which was needed information, but
Omar became uncomfortable if they talked about their children, their vacations,
their ailments. He had never had guidelines about this, was never sure what
amount of banter was appropriate. He preferred customers who let him alone in
their bathrooms or kitchens and waited until he called out, “Ma’am? All
finished!” Ma’am because it was almost always women, and then he would take
their compliments, “You’re terrific . . . (quick glance at the embroidered badge
on his uniform) . . . Omar.” Then he would hop in his truck and hurry to the next
At the end of the day, Omar parked the truck in the fenced lot of Valley
Plumbing’s fleet, then drove home in his used Civic. He got out of his uniform
and into khaki pants, a cotton plaid shirt, and moccasins. It was Monday and
Steven usually came home Mondays: a meal, a chat. They would chat about
Steven’s work; he was a computer programmer, had to travel to conferences
in Houston or Tokyo to keep pace with advances in technology. It was a job
Omar never fully understood, but it made him silently grateful that there would
never be technical advances in ball cocks or flappers or gaskets.
Omar had learned to cook basic meals: pasta, meatloaf, fish with a side of
rice or vegetables. He had tried delivered pizza and Chinese take-out, but that
wasn’t thrifty eating and anyway, cooking was a soothing, satisfying task. He
decided on beef and noodle casserole tonight. He laid out the ingredients and a
pan and was reviewing the recipe in the cookbook when the phone rang. “Dad?
I have to skip tonight. Marlene has an event. Okay?”
“Yes. Next Monday then.”
Steven had become involved romantically with a lady boxer, Marlene The
Machine. He had also invested a bit of money in her career, which Omar
thought risky, though he didn’t say anything; he didn’t need a lecture about the
joys of risk.
Omar halved the recipe, took out a smaller pan. He boiled the noodles,
browned the meat, celery, and onions, layered them into the pan, tucked it into
the oven. In the dim den, he settled into his tweedy recliner and clicked on CNN.
He liked to find out what had happened in the world while he had been testing
flushes, fixing leaks. But it was all meaningless to him: a suicide bombing in Tel
Aviv, the sinking of a boat of African refugees, a child abducted in Connecticut.
He had tried to care about these things, but any concern seemed false. He
watched the news only because it had become a habit, like church (he attended a
Catholic church; he enjoyed the ancient rituals, their predictability, though he
could have never admitted to himself the true motive of the habit of church: the
priest, after Mass, would bless him and bless Alma too, as if she were there with
him on the sunny steps).
Food now, alone at the kitchen table; dishes now, and tidying; pajamas now
and a thorough floss and brush of his teeth; bed now and the excellent scythe of
“Hello, Mrs. Clark.” Omar had not forgotten Mrs. Clark; he had been here
in April to install a bidet. Mrs. Clark was sincere and frazzled, a thin woman
who seemed too loosely put together; she organized charity auctions (leukemia,
multiple sclerosis); she was stylishly disheveled, her brown hair in a clamp-like
clip, her skirt wrinkled silk (abstract poppies), her white sleeveless top with an
ink smudge. She was likeable and yet the kind of woman who evoked wariness.
“Omar. How about an iced tea? You look parched.”
“No, ma’am. But thank you.”
“Come on. A delicious iced tea. It’s peach flavored.”
“All right. Thank you.” It would obviously please Mrs. Clark if he tried this
tea and he didn’t want to displease her. She seemed sad today; this sadness was
of a grayer hue than in April, of a less sharp outline.
“Master bath. You remember where it is.”
Omar nodded and took his toolbox towards the back of the house, through
the master bedroom, a large room in muted white and lilac and pale yellow, with a
vaulted ceiling and fake logs in a fireplace, with a view of a cool, blue pool and
beyond that, the city. His eyes flicked across the unkempt bed as he walked into
the bathroom. This room was large too, but brightly lit because of skylights and
sections of glass brick; there were his and her vanities, though the his was
absolutely bare; when Omar was here in April, there were bottles of cologne and
aftershave, an expensive electric razor, tubes of ointment and toothpaste, a
toothbrush in a ceramic cup with Jack glazed into it.
The shower, a tall cubicle in a corner, a yard-and-a-half square, was
separate from the tub, an oval whirlpool with sly jets. Omar swung open the
shower’s thick glass door, looked at the dripping showerhead, one of those
showerheads with options of normal to pulsating. Mrs. Clark came into the
bathroom with a pair of peach teas; she set his tea on the vacant vanity. “How
are you, Omar?”
“Fine, ma’am.” He was afraid she would tell him to call her Julia; this had
happened with other customers, call me Martha, call me Barbara, and though
he smiled at these friendly commands, he never obeyed them. But Mrs. Clark
was merciful and didn’t tell him, call me Julia.
“Good. I’m fine too.”
“I have to shut off the water.”
Omar walked back through the bedroom and through the oddly long house;
he imagined cocktail parties here (there was a wet bar in an alcove, martini and
margarita and wine glasses suspended upside-down in notched slats, liquor
bottles on frosted glass shelves, a tiny stainless steel sink, a slender ice machine);
he imagined a mix of flattered and flattering people among the rustic Mexican
furniture, the modern art, or out on the flagstone patio, and maybe there was gin-
fueled innuendo and the frayed laughter of the hostess. This house was an alien
world, a world of cautiously chosen looks.
Outside, around the side of the garage, Omar twisted shut the main valve. A
small, almost transparent scorpion was creeping along the bottom of the wall;
Omar crushed it with the heel of his boot (he had been bitten once, during a
midnight tip-toe to check on colicky Steven; Alma tended to his swollen foot and
added a tsk, tsk, and this happy moment was unlocked as Omar killed this
Mrs. Clark was still in the master bathroom when Omar returned. She was
perched on the rim of the whirlpool tub; she was sipping her peach tea and
gazing up at the skylights. Omar said, “This won’t take a minute.”
“I’m not in your way, am I? I’m not interfering?”
The shower, Omar noticed now, smelled of lemony bleach and sandalwood
soap: sanitized, sensual. He turned the gold faucet handles to let the water out of
the pipes, then chose a wrench and a screwdriver out of his toolbox and stepped
into the glass cubicle. He glanced at Mrs. Clark sitting on the tub. Curious?,
suspicious? No: pensive, maybe thinking about Jack, why he wasn’t here.
Omar removed the faucet handles and set them gently on the white tile floor
of the shower; he removed the stems and he replaced the rotted rubber washers
with new ones (he had all sizes in neat slots in his toolbox). He reattached
everything, wiped the handles with a red rag, wiped the tiles of his boot prints.
An uncomplicated job. He tucked the red rag into his back pocket and said, “I’ll
write out the bill now.” But Mrs. Clark seemed not to hear him; she was sobbing
soundlessly; her cheeks were entirely wet and fat teardrops rolled into her mouth,
rounded her chin; she cupped her palms under her elbows and rocked back and
forth on the rim of the tub. Omar stared at her as if she were a peculiar animal in
a zoo, an oddity to wonder at and then move on. He twitched the handle of his
toolbox and its contents rattled.
“Omar. Please forgive me. I’m a catastrophe today.” She plucked a pink
tissue out of a box on the her vanity and she blew her nose noisily. “Damn this.”
Omar stood there, uncertain, wrongly rooted here, not fleeing, wrongly
focused on her vanity, the objects on it: lipsticks, lotions, creams, eye shadows,
nail polishes, bath salts, bath oils, things he couldn’t identify, things of beauty
“I have nobody, Omar. A million acquaintances, but nobody here.” She
jabbed a thumb at her heart. “I’m sorry.”
“Not to worry, ma’am. I’ll be out front.” Omar hurried through the long
house and out to the flagstone loop, his truck in the shade of unpruned mesquites.
In his neat penmanship, he filled out a form on an aluminum clipboard: parts,
Mrs. Clark was suddenly next to the truck; she was put together again, glib
hostess. “Please excuse me, Omar. I cause scenes. I’m brilliant at it. Jack can
tell you. I flung a trivet at him. A dozen stitches in his jaw. It’s all my fault,
Omar. I’m always to blame.”
“Okay.” This gaudy information, how it unnerved his heart.
“I’m sorry, Omar.”
“Don’t mention it.”
“Not bad advice. I won’t mention it anymore. Except under oath, ha ha.”
She wrote a check, took the customer copy of the bill, wished Omar a nice day.
Omar wheeled back onto the street, gulped his diluted soda. He hadn’t tasted
Mrs. Clark’s peach tea; maybe this would hurt her, maybe she would dump the
tea into the his sink and would associate him with Jack. Omar wanted to go back
and drink that tea, but this was a silly idea and he was not a man of silly ideas.
Marlene had one swollen eye and there was a vertical cut on her bottom lip.
She had won her bout last night and was adrenalin-high. Steven had insisted that
his father meet Marlene. “No, Dad, it’s not serious,” he had said. “But she’s a
character. A firecracker. Come on, live a little.”
“I had a busy day.”
“Of course. But I won’t take no.”
Omar was reluctant, but he said, “All right.” But it was so annoyingly pat,
this won’t take no, and he wondered where else Steven had used it, with women
maybe, women at those conferences in Houston or Tokyo, in a hotel lounge, in an
airport lounge. Live a little: how knowing Steven seemed about this.
Steven picked Omar up in his black sports coupe and they drove to the south
edge of the city. Marlene had a patio home in a new subdivision, all tan stucco
and terra cotta shingles, the yards of chalky gravel with ocotillo. Marlene greeted
them out front; she was in silvery sweatpants and a turquoise blue tank top, had a
tattoo of a panther on one arm. “Hello, Steven’s father,” she said and she had an
oddly feminine handshake. In the very bare kitchen, uncapping bottles of
Corona, she told Omar that boxing wasn’t making her rich, “but anything’s better
than clerking at Circle K.”
“It’s not too dangerous?”
“It has its dangers. I was in the hospital in January. In a coma. And I had to
have this eyebrow stapled back on.” She pointed to this eyebrow, the scar tissue
there a pink worm. “It was a bloody flap,” she added, but Omar was thinking of
the stitches in Jack’s jaw and Mrs. Clark’s violence. The violence in these
Omar accepted a Corona and wandered into the main room. In bookcases
were trophies of all sizes, oak blocks with golden columns on top of which were
poised golden lady boxers in mid-punch; there were championship belts too,
platter-like and ornate.
“Impressive, isn’t she?” said Steven, following, and his tone indicated there
was no disputing this. Father and son sat together on a black leather couch and
Marlene came in with a tray of cheddar cheese and wheat thins. She sat in an
armchair (black leather, it matched the couch, both had a factory sheen); she was
not an attractive woman with her blond hair in a buzz cut, with her thickly
freckled skin, with that panther tattoo. Had she caused scenes? Omar imagined
women throughout Phoenix flinging trivets, throwing punches.
“That left hook. Pow! She was surprised,” said Steven. This seemed a
conversation they had already had.
“She gave me the opportunity,” said Marlene. “That’s what it’s all about.
I’ve got a keen eye. The opponent loses focus, a nanosecond of focus, and I hit.”
Steven and Marlene talked about the fight, but Omar let his gaze drift. He
took in what he hadn’t noticed before; on the cement mantle were ceramic
miniatures: frogs and toadstools, a hippopotamus, kittens in a basket, bunny
rabbits with fishing poles or skateboards. Marlene caught Omar squinting at
these things and she said, “Aren’t those cute? I collect them. See the little jack-
o’-lantern? That’s from your son.”
Steven said, “I’ll fire up the grill. You like pork ribs, Dad?”
“Yes. Of course.”
Steven went out to the back patio, lifted the lid of the grill, dumped charcoal
briquettes into it. Marlene put a sweaty slice of cheese on a wheat thin and
popped it into her wide mouth. She chewed, swallowed, swigged her beer, said,
“So, you’re a plumber.”
“Twenty-five years in January.”
Marlene nodded at him, slid another cheese and thin into her mouth. “You’re
not afraid of bacteria? Germs? Slushing around in sewage all day?”
“Pardon? No. It’s not like that.”
“I bet you could tell a story or two. People stories. The characters you’ve
“It’s not like that.”
Outside, Steven squirted fluid on the briquettes, tossed a lit match onto them,
had to jump back from the sudden inferno; why didn’t he understand the how of
basic and useful undertakings?
“I’ll nuke a can of creamed corn,” said Marlene. “We have salad too. You
like Thousand Island?”
“Yes. Anything. Thank you.”
“Relax, Omar.” She thrust herself out of the armchair and sauntered on her
bowed legs into the kitchen. Steven came in, slid shut the screen. “Gloomy, Dad?”
“No. Tired, that’s all.”
“You seem morose.”
“I had a busy day with work.”
Steven joined Marlene in the kitchen, unwrapped a package of ribs, shook a
bottle of barbecue sauce. He said, “Dad’s in a bad mood. He gets like this.”
“Is he lonely? Seems lonely.”
“Since Mom died.”
“Introduce him to Carla. She’s spicy. She needs a partner for tango
“Carla’s too loud and flashy. He would prefer calm and normal.”
How Omar hated all this analysis. People didn’t use to analyze one another;
there was never any need to. Alma had never interpreted Omar’s moods and he
had never interpreted hers. In the evenings, Alma would sew curtains and
blouses, would crochet baby blankets for church bazaars, would bake cookies;
Omar would buff his boots, would help Steven with math, would water the
zucchinis and radishes in their small garden. They never concerned themselves
with happiness or sadness. In the summers, they took family vacations, loaded
the station wagon and drove across the scalding desert to the ocean; they played
in the surf, built sand castles, ate budget seafood. “This is fun,” Alma would say
and this was an extreme comment. She was diagnosed with bone cancer at
thirty-three; she had no regrets, there was no if only in her mouth. This beautiful
woman whom Omar loved became a husk; the priest anointed her and cited
miracles, but Alma said, “It’s bad luck, that’s all.”
Steven laid the racks of pink ribs on the grill, slathered them with sauce.
Between hot mitts, Marlene brought out a bowl of creamed corn. “Can I help?”
said Omar. “No, no, you’re the guest,” said Marlene and she winked at him and
all of this seemed like a curse. Omar sat at the metal table on the patio; the table
wobbled, had a flaw in its assembly, a problem quickly fixed, but Omar couldn’t
volunteer. “How’s the computer business, Steven?”
“Oh, that? I quit that. All that effort and it’s so dull. I’m going to be a fight
promoter instead. I’ve been meaning to tell you.”
The tiny, ceramic jack-o’-lantern on the mantle, this woman with the panther
tattoo, blood and brutality: what Steven needed now. Omar couldn’t decide how
to respond: wish him success or call him a fool? He said, “Oh.”
“Yes, Dad. Oh.”
Marlene came out with a bowl of salad, plastic plates, plastic cutlery, paper
napkins. They ate: the gooey corn, the salad that tasted of warehouse, the
undercooked ribs with their chemical flavor. And the table wobbled under
Marlene’s restless elbows.
“I’ve got a Price Club cheesecake,” said Marlene. “Strawberry. It’s
“I’m sorry,” said Omar. “I have a stomachache. Please take me home,
Steven shrugged at Marlene, yanked at the paper napkin he had tucked into
his collar, led his father out of the house (those gross trophies, that gross proof of
fury). In the sports coupe now, on the freeway now. “Isn’t she fantastic?” said
Steven. “That fight last night? The crowd was thrilled. Wild! We’ve been
booked for a fight in Reno this Saturday. A big, big deal. Not the main event,
but almost. Harrah’s is providing a suite, buffet vouchers. Are you listening?”
“Your mother would have thought Marlene ridiculous. A waste of time.”
“You always hit me with that, don’t you. Anytime you have a chance. What
Mom would have thought. You always hide behind that. It’s sort of cowardly.”
“Don’t talk to your father like that. Don’t analyze me.” A thorny clump in
his throat now, the nuisance and shame of it.
Home now, this unpretentious brick house on this pretty street in central
Phoenix, this street with old eucalyptus trees, real lawns, a kid on a bicycle, other
kids kicking a red rubber ball. Omar flinched at his son’s sudden touch on his
wrist and he got out of the too fancy car. Inside now, lights on, those old, nubbly,
sparkly fixtures Omar loved. He tore Alka-Seltzer tablets into a mug, added
water, swirled and guzzled the fizz. He sat on the rim of the plain bathtub and he
examined his hands, the palms and knuckles calloused, the skin scrubbed clean.
These were honest, cautious hands, useful hands which his son had not inherited.
And I’m to blame, thought Omar; it’s my fault. He remembered Mrs. Clark’s
confession of fault, of blame, and his response to it: Don’t mention it. She had
taken this as advice, so Omar took it the same; he wouldn’t mention his failure to
anybody, would never admit it to his son. He cupped his palms under his elbows
and, mimicking Mrs. Clark, he rocked back and forth on the rim of the tub.
Jenny Steele’s fiction has appeared in Pebble Lake Review, Harpur Palate,
The Bullfight Review, Salt Hill, The First Line, jerseyworks.com, and
whimperbang.com, and she has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is
a graduate of the College of Santa Fe, New Mexico, but now lives in Tucson,
On “Omar Sibelius”:
I love to create fiction with characters whose worlds usually never intersect.
Then I smash them together and watch what happens. Here are Omar, a
plumber, and Mrs. Clark, a society wife, in a common and seemingly
meaningless situation. But what comes out of it? The realization (at least
on Omar’s part) of their shared sense of futility. I want fiction that
examines brief encounters between characters entirely unalike and who
then, perhaps, recognize themselves in the other in that tiny moment.
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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of Contemporary
Volume 2, Number 1
Copyright © 2007
by Leah Browning, Editor.
All future rights to material
published in the Apple
Valley Review are retained
by the individual authors