Florence wanted very much to be in love. She had watched every romantic movie she could find, and as the hero and the heroine kissed at the end, Florence would sigh and believe that she herself was being kissed by the handsome cowboy or prince or superhero.
Before she went to sleep, Florence would read a romance novel, or just a part of it, until the book fell from her hands and her eyes closed in sleep. Then, if she was lucky, she would dream her way into that very novel where she herself was the heroine, pursued by a dashing earl or executive or surgeon, until that final kiss when she woke up with a start.
Sometimes, however, she had bad dreams, dreams that she was dancing by herself in a room full of happy couples, men dancing with women, men dancing with men, women dancing with women. And there she was, in the middle of the dance floor, trying to look happy, hoping that someone would leave his partner and tap her on the shoulder. At times in her bad dream Florence herself would try to cut in on couples and tap one of them on the shoulder. In her dream it did not matter if she invited a man or a woman to dance. And everyone would reject her, with a frown, a scornful word, or with total indifference. Then, when she had tried to dance with everyone in the ballroom, she ran out the door, wishing she had a glass slipper to lose so that the prince would come looking for her. But there was no prince in this bad dream, or if there was, he was in another room playing cards and had no interest in her.
When Florence woke up from one of the bad dreams, she was usually sweating, her damp hair lying across her brown eyes. Then she would get up and go to work, hardly able to bring herself to open the door of Malcolm’s Plumbing Associates. Then she would take her place back in the office where she answered the phone, paid the bills, dealt with customer complaints on the internet, and wallowed in self-pity.
On those days, Malcolm would know about the dream. He was about thirty-five and single, whereas Florence was thirty and single. Florence often thought that Malcolm should get married, even though he was really short, much shorter than she was. Women liked successful short guys better than they liked unsuccessful tall ones.
Yes, Malcolm would know because, one day a month before he had found her crying at her desk.
“Florence, what is it? Did someone die?”
And then she started telling him about her bad dream.
“But it’s just a dream,” he said. “We all have bad dreams. Want to hear one of mine?”
She blew her nose and looked up at him. The only time she could look up at him was when she was sitting and he was standing.
“Oh, sure.” What else could she say to her boss? She waited for him to begin while she took a sip from her water bottle.
“In my bad dream, I’m fixing a toilet, and the entire thing cracks open, and lots of water and snakes come out and float down the stairs. I’m always fixing toilets on the second floor in my dreams. Sometimes in my bad dream I decide to take a shower after fixing a plugged-up sink, and the owner of the house catches me.”
Florence started to laugh, while Malcolm scowled at her. “Not funny. Scary to a plumber. What could be worse?”
“I don’t know. Maybe a full bathtub coming loose and flying down the stairs where it stops at the front door. Just before the fancy hostess is about to greet her guests.”
“Good one. Sometimes I have happy dreams, where I fix a drain or install a toilet or stop a leak, and it all goes fast and everyone’s happy. Then the woman of the house invites me to have lunch. She’s always pretty.”
“Really? You have dreams like that? You dream about pretty women?”
“Sure. And most of the women are tall, so that’s bad.”
Florence started feeling self-conscious since she had noticed Malcolm’s lack of height. Then she had an insight.
“It’s probably good for a plumber to be short. You can move around in small spaces. You could also be a jockey. I think there’s a rule that jockeys have to be short.”
“I don’t know if there’s a rule, but I don’t think any owner would hire an enormous jockey to ride on their horse. Large jockeys would make the horse run slower. At least that’s how it seems to me.”
“I guess I should start doing some work, Malcolm. You’re paying me to talk about my bad dreams. That’s not right.”
“I’m also paying you so I can talk about my bad dreams. Maybe one of your jobs could be therapist. Sometimes I think I need one.”
“You seem to be level-headed to me.”
“I’m sure I seem short to you.”
Florence didn’t know what to say. He was right. Or half right. He didn’t just seem short to her. He was, in fact, much shorter than she was. In order to make things more equal, she would have to ask him to order elevator shoes, and she herself would have to wear flats everywhere she went. You couldn’t ask a man to buy elevator shoes, could you? That didn’t seem right, somehow.
She realized she was staring at him while thinking about his height. With a slight smile, Malcolm turrned. “Better get back to work.” Then he walked back to the front of the store. Minutes later he was back.
“Forgot to mention. I have a job to do up at that ritzy neighborhood, Woodland Heights, or whatever it’ called. You know that surgeon, Dr. Sawgood? His wife called yesterday after hours. Wants to do some remodeling and add a bathroom or two.”
“Maybe she’ll invite you to lunch, like the woman in your good dream.”
“Maybe. Now stay here and take calls and mind the front of the store while I’m gone. Casper will be showing up soon when he’s finished fixing a shower that doesn’t work. When he gets back, you can go back here and do whatever needs to be done.”
“Yes, Boss.” She gave him a little smile.
“I guess so. It’s kind of stupid to be in a bad mood after a bad dream.”
“Right.” He gave a little wave and was gone.
Florence unplugged her laptop and took it out to the front of the store.
She put the laptop right by the phone. Why wasn’t there always someone here in front, in case a customer came in? Of course, not very many people sauntered in looking for ingredients for a do-it-yourself project. Most called on the phone saying they were ankle-deep in water, or a faucet wouldn’t stop, or a toilet wouldn’t flush. Then Malcolm or Casper, his brother and associate, would be in the truck asap and off to rescue those who had been offended or harmed by poor plumbing.
Once in the front, Florence busied herself with her bookkeeping. One person, a very tall man wearing a baseball cap, came in looking for a kitchen drain stopper. She realized he would be just the right height for her, but he was in the market for a drain stopper, not a woman. Besides, he didn’t have a kind face. Malcolm had a kind face.
In between phone calls and bookkeeping and one tall customer, Florence kept thinking about her boss. He had his own business, he was nice, he had a kind face, but he was short. Weren’t there any short women in this town? They were probably looking for tall men. That seemed stupid. Maybe she should petition the city council for a local law that stated that short men were for short women and tall men for tall women. That would even things out.
Then Florence had an epiphany of sorts. She started talking to herself. “Why should the man be taller? Because men on average are taller than most women. So what! Or maybe it’s because men tend to dominate women. Right. But should it be that way? Shouldn’t men and women be equal? And besides, even if one woman is taller than one man, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the woman is stronger than the man. This whole thing is just starting to look stupid to me. I like Malcolm a lot. I don’t care if I’m taller than he is. And I don’t care what other people might think. But there’s one problem. How do I explain all this to Malcolm?”
“You just did.”
Florence let out a little shriek and turned around. “Malcolm! Where did you come from?”
“From the back door, the way I always come in.”
“Oh. Guess it’s time for me to resign. I’m so embarrassed.”
“Don’t be. Please, don’t be. I liked what you said. I liked it a lot. Would you mind standing up, Florence?”
She stood to her full height. Malcolm walked over.
“I want to find out what it’s like to kiss a tall woman. If you don’t mind.”
Anita G. Gorman grew up in Queens and now lives in northeast Ohio. Her scholarly work has appeared in such publications as Clues: A Journal of Detection; FOLLY; Mythlore; Dime Novel Roundup; the Swedish-American Historical Quarterly, and eight volumes of the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Her essay “Where Are You, O High-School Friends?” was published in Unfinished Chapters (2015) and “Finding Bill” in Finding Mr. Right (2016). "Tea with Barbara" appears in the 2018 collection Table for Two. Her short stories have appeared in Gilbert, Down in the Dirt, Dual Coast, Jitter Press, Red Fez, Speculative Grammarian, Scarlet Leaf Review, Knee-Jerk, Eyedrum Periodically, Adelaide, and Inwood Indiana Press. Her one-act play, "Astrid; Or, My Swedish Mama", was produced by the Hopewell Theatre in Youngstown, Ohio in March 2018.