The Showerlier

by Maggie Slater

      Dylan Brooks was a shower connoisseur. After thirteen years in the medical field, Dylan realized he hated his job, hated the system, and wanted more than anything to do something he enjoyed. Dylan loved taking showers. So he quit, moved to a smaller apartment in a cheaper part of town, and set up shop as a shower specialist. 
      What he did was this: a client—perhaps a prospective homebuyer or a hotel manager—would contact him to test their showers. He was hypersensitive to water purity, temperature shifts, and pressure issues. He could detect hard water buildup by the timbre of a shower’s jets. He could identify too much salt in a softening system simply by rubbing his wettened fingertips together. 
      He never soaped himself while testing a shower—too much soap dried his skin and ruined his subtler senses of touch—but he went through the motions each time. He checked the distance to the inlaid soap caddy or—God forbid—the tub ledge where the shampoo might be perched. He made sure the towel bar was near enough to access without losing the warmth trapped in the shower bay. He even noted where moisture gathered, post-washing, so the owner could better prevent mold.
      So many things made a shower pleasant or unpleasant, but most clients simply wanted to know if the shower was functional. In layman’s terms, that meant steady water pressure, tolerable temperature control, and a decent bathroom layout. Most didn’t appreciate the subtle variations between showers, and while he could have expounded for hours on the virtues of proper drainage and the features of disparate showerhead systems, he rarely found an audience who cared. 
      Check the box, that’s all they wanted. But he enjoyed the work. Nothing soothed him more than hot water streaming over his skin. A hissing deluge on a porcelain tub delighted him in the way professional gossip never had. And since most people spent a sizable chunk of their lives in the bathroom, it made sense that his clients wanted to optimize the experience. 
      This business didn’t flood him with funds, but it paid the rent on his studio apartment, and he didn’t need much. He had a steady list of commercial clients—mid-level hotels and apartment buildings, mostly—which maintained his simple lifestyle. So when Mr. Langford of the Rosetta Vue, a five-hundred-unit luxury complex, called him up one April afternoon, Dylan was cautious. Luxury apartment managers tended to expect luxury service, specifically on-call availability, and they tended to push back on his findings, minimizing any issues he might report to avoid the repair costs. Dylan doubted he needed the headache.
      “It’s #1546,” Mr. Langford said. “We’ve had some bad luck with the apartment. Tenants defaulting on their rents after a few months and vanishing without a trace, and the water bill runs through the roof whenever it’s occupied. The plumbers say it’s not a leak or anything, but whenever a tenant disappears on us, they deliberately leave the shower running. Day and night, sometimes, until the neighbor complains and we have to let ourselves in. Gerald Plunket from the Riverbank Inn recommended you, and I’m all out of options. Will you take a look at it?” 
      Dylan winced but forgave the slight, a mere overflow of Mr. Langford’s desperation. A successful resolution for #1546 could mean a significant increase in Dylan’s profile and another business stream. If his bank account hadn’t been at an all-time low he might have turned it down, but after a few more questions regarding the shower, he agreed to come by the following Thursday. 
      The Rosetta Vue was a sculpture of sleek glass in the city’s financial district. Through its revolving doors, a river of sharp suits and designer dresses passed, a hungry spring in every step. He’d known people like these in the hospital system, drowning in excess cash, excess hours, and excess excesses. Dylan pushed through the spinning door and approached the concierge desk.
      A young woman perched behind a granite slab with waterfall edging would have been more fitting in a powder room than a lobby. Her enormous glasses reminded Dylan of the ’80s, but slicker. 
      He hesitated under her scrutinizing gaze as she took in the towel draped over his arm. 
      “Mr. Langford asked me to inspect #1546?” 
      She forced a practiced smile. “Oh, you’re the shower inspector?”
      Showerlier, he thought, but didn’t correct her, fearing she’d laugh at him. “That’s right. May I go up?”
      The girl handed him a key card. “Fifteenth floor, on the left, end of the hall. Please let me know if you need anything else.” She said the last part out of habit as she turned her attention to a woman clicking across the lobby tiles in six-inch stilettos. Her smile brightened with genuine glee. “Oh. My. God. Tell me those your new Choos!” 
      Apparently dismissed, he left them gabbling and headed for the elevator. 
      He found #1546 without any trouble. His footsteps rang on the dark laminate floor when he entered. On the outermost wall, his reflection haunted the floor-to-ceiling windows. He found the bathroom beyond the entryway, on the right. 
      The bathroom was unremarkable. It was white, all white, as though that could hide the lack of natural light, and had only the basic appointments: a vanity, a toilet, and a bath-shower combo at the end. He drew the utilitarian curtain back and forth, pleased to find the bar didn’t snag the rings. Then he closed the bathroom door, hung the towel, undressed, and placed the folded clothes on the vanity. 
      He never turned on the overhead fan when he showered on the job. At home, he practiced all the typical mildew-fighting habits—squeegee, tile spray, fan—but on the job he preferred to let the shower speak. He turned on the faucet and trailed his fingers through the gushing water as it warmed to just below piping hot. Then he switched on the showerhead and stepped into the jet. 
      Dylan caught his breath. There was nothing notable about how the hot water rushed over him, sending plumes of steam into the cold bathroom, and yet he sensed something… different. He stood for a long while as the water thundered over his neck and trickled down to his toes. The water smelled fresh, without the usual chemical undertones of industrial purifying. No, this was more like well water. Or better still, as if a mountain hot spring had been funneled straight to the showerhead. 
      Close, he thought, but not quite. There was depth to the water, as if sourced from somewhere far underground. It felt… free, somehow. Untamed. Ancient and nourishing. Every ache and pain slipped away under its caress, renewing him, revitalizing him. 
      He envisioned the shower pipes descending into the earth, to an untapped aquifer, unsullied by man. The perfect water. He shivered in the steam, sweat pearling on his brow. In all his life, he had never taken such a delicious shower. 
      Looking back, he admitted he had milked the opportunity, lingering as he evaluated every detail. His fingers and toes were wrinkled when he finally stepped onto the bathmat. As he dried himself, he noticed that his towel felt crusty. He looked it over, half-expecting to discover he’d brought an unwashed towel by accident, but found no evidence. His clothes, too, were tacky, and when he smelled them he drew back in repulsion. How had he considered these clothes clean enough to re-wear? He must reek in them! Mortified, he dressed and wrenched his coat around him, zipping it to the neck to hold the stench at bay. Then he hurried down to the lobby. 
      The girl at the desk glanced up. Did her smile seem brighter than before, more delighted to see him? “How did it go?” she asked as he attempted to slip by. He hesitated. 
      “Not bad. It’s a fine shower, I’ll say that much. Not sure I’ll be of much help to Mr. Langford.” 
      Did his eyes deceive him, or was she blushing? “Maybe he’ll have you come again sometime.” 
      He didn’t know what to make of the flirty twist in her smile, and, still horrified by the odor of his clothes, he said goodbye and hurried out.  
      Dylan intended to report to Mr. Langford the following day, but something held him back. It felt wrong to write about such a shower in the usual formal tones, so he delayed, telling Mr. Langford it would be ready by Monday at the earliest. Dylan had other appointments anyway, and he convinced himself he needed a sizeable chunk of time to give the Rosetta Vue shower the attention it deserved. 
      Dylan returned to professional showering, but none of the showers he took in other visibly superior bathrooms made any impression on him. In fact, several outright revolted him with greasy water that left him feeling worse after washing in them. Everything seemed dirtier to him. Even after several more washes, his clothes retained their unpleasant funk. His own shower disgusted him, left his skin itchy. He was exhausted all the time. 
      The only thing he enjoyed was thinking of that invigorating wash in #1546. God, what a beautiful shower! Nothing else compared to it, not even close. The finest rainfall showerhead left him shuddering from the touch of subpar droplets. He couldn’t help envisioning the pipes of every other shower extending directly into the sewer, despite knowing it wasn’t true. 
      On Friday, he called Mr. Langford. 
      “Well? What did you think? There’s something wrong with it, isn’t there? Oh, I knew it.” Mr. Langford sounded as if he’d been biting his fingernails to the quick while waiting for Dylan’s call. 
      “I’m… not sure yet,” Dylan said. “I’m afraid I need to test it once more, to confirm some findings. Could I come by today?”
      “I suppose. If it won’t take too long? It’s only, we have a walk-through scheduled with prospective tenants at one o’clock this afternoon. Can you come immediately?”
      Dylan tried to keep the glee out of his voice. In his mind, he was already stepping into the steaming jets. “I’m on my way now.”
      Grabbing a plastic bag containing new slacks, a polo shirt, and a towel he’d bought the day before, Dylan hurried to the Rosetta Vue. 
      His memory did not fail him. The instant he stepped into the shower, the freshness overwhelmed him. It was as if the water had never encountered a human before, never known what a human was, and as it streamed over him, it was learning everything there was to know about him and delighting in it. 
      Dylan sighed, inhaling the steam. The years melted from him. He felt like he’d won the lottery or received word that “it wasn’t cancer after all.” He was the absolute happiest he’d ever been in his life.  
      The click of the apartment door opening scared him out of the shower. He dried and threw on his new clothes, and when he opened the bathroom door, he found a startled Mr. Langford staring at him with a young couple behind him. 
      The couple exchanged glances. Dylan stammered, “I’ve finished the report, Mr. Langford. The shower is perfect. Best I’ve seen. May I—may I speak with you a moment? For my records.”
      Mr. Langford apologized to the pair and followed him out into the hall. A little knot lodged between his brows. “Well? I thought you said it would be quick?” But when he met Dylan’s eyes, his frown softened. 
      Dylan took a breath to steady his buzzing nerves. “I want to lease this apartment.” The words spluttered out of him like an old tap. “I’ve got to have this apartment.”
      Mr. Langford looked apologetic. “I see. Can you—forgive me, I have to ask—afford it? Rent comes to thirty-eight hundred a month. I’m not sure—eh—it’s not that I wouldn’t love to have you as a resident…” He shifted uncomfortably. “Does shower inspecting pay well?”
      He didn’t have to ask. Dylan had never coveted the wealth of the men he’d loathed in the medical system, but he withered with self-loathing as Mr. Langford’s gaze swept over his cheap, brandless clothes and big box store loafers.
      “But the shower is all right?” Mr. Langford asked, wringing his hands. “It’s working and everything?”
      Working! People were so plebeian about showers. Dylan bit back a scoff. “It’s working, yes,” he said, and then excused himself. 
      As he passed the concierge’s desk, the girl leapt up and hurried to catch his sleeve before he reached the spinning door. There was no questioning the flush in her cheeks this time. She couldn’t even meet his gaze. “I—I was hoping maybe we could get coffee sometime? Maybe Sunday?”
      Dylan mumbled that he didn’t like coffee, but the girl looked so dejected, he backpedaled, saying he’d check his schedule. He accepted her phone number and went out to the street. 
      He had never been the kind of man to draw attention to himself, yet on his way home, it seemed as if every person turned to smile at him. By the time he got back to his apartment, two other women had given him their phone numbers, and one man as well. 
      Catching a glimpse of himself in the hall mirror, he stopped dead in his tracks. He looked ten years younger. The angles of his face were pleasingly symmetrical in a way he’d never noticed before. His shoulders swelled beneath his polo, as if he’d worked out every day of his life. He couldn’t fathom how it had happened, but there it was, staring him in the face: Dylan Brooks was handsome
      After that, the thought of taking a shower anywhere other than #1546 horrified him. He canceled appointments and curled up on the couch. Every passing day, he grew filthier. He couldn’t bear to touch the water from his own sink or bathtub. It was like pouring raw sewage over his hands, and it left a film he couldn’t rub off. 
      He washed his clothes over and over, but it soon became clear that washing them was what made them disgusting. Soon, he couldn’t even put them in the machine, couldn’t bring himself to sit on his furniture, couldn’t even climb into bed. Everything was dirty. Everything stank. 
      Something had to be done, and there was only one thing he could think of, the only thing he thought about anymore.
      Three weeks after the embarrassing talk in the hall, Dylan called Mr. Langford. “I just have one more concern—just popped into my mind—about that shower in #1546.” He spoke with all the authority he could muster. “A quick check, just a few minutes, ought to clear it up. I’d just hate for there to be an issue I missed, you see? It’s my professional reputation and all.”
      “I’m afraid that’s impossible,” Mr. Langford said, and he really did sound sorry. “#1546 is rented out, and I can’t send a stranger—even a helpful stranger—into the tenant’s space without written approval. You understand, of course?”
      “Yes,” Dylan stammered, “yes, I understand, but it’s imperative, for the tenant’s sake, that I—”
      “I’m very sorry, Mr. Brooks. If the tenant complains, I will consult you immediately.” 
      When Mr. Langford hung up, dread seeped into Dylan’s bones. He couldn’t wait until the tenant complained. The tenant would never complain. The tenant would step into that shower and feel the wonderful, delicious water, and they wouldn’t ever complain, just like he’d never have complained, if he had #1546 to himself. 
      He crouched on the kitchenette tiles, hugging his knees and rocking, disgusted even by the tears dripping down his face. He’d die in this squalor, with dirt under his fingernails, crusted between his toes, sticky on his scalp. He couldn’t bear it. No, he had to bathe. It was the only solution. 
      Over the next three days, he forced himself to dress and lurk at the coffee shop across from the Rosetta Vue. From there, he could watch the apartment building and note each time the woman renting #1546 left and returned. He had identified her by the mailbox she visited on the first two days, and he blessed her for her stable routine. Each morning, she left at seven o’clock. Each night, she returned by six-thirty. It didn’t vary. 
      Thursday morning, he stood on the street corner, itching, waiting. 7:01. 7:03. He scowled at his watch and noted a smear of grime across his knuckles. Teeth clenched, he shoved his hands into his coat pockets. 
      At 7:05, the woman swept out, coat draped over her arm as she juggled her thermos and purse and briefcase, jogging in her low heels down the sidewalk. Dylan forced himself to wait another twenty minutes, to make sure that in her rush she hadn’t forgotten anything. Then he pushed through the rotating doors and hurried to the concierge desk.
      The concierge took him in from head to toe, no smile in her eyes now. “Oh, it’s you.” 
      He could imagine how he must look—unwashed, unshaven, reeking—but he couldn’t fix it now. 
      “I’m sorry, Mr. Langford asked me to check the shower in #1546 again. The tenant complained about the water pressure cutting out on her.” 
      The concierge frowned. “Mr. Langford didn’t mention it to me.”
      “He sounded rather rushed,” Dylan said. “I think he just wants a quick confirmation. Shouldn’t take me more than a couple minutes.” 
      “I’m sorry, but I can’t let you into a tenant’s apartment—” 
      He whipped out his phone. “I can call Mr. Langford, if you’d prefer. He said she’d given verbal consent for me to check it, only the bathroom of course. You could escort me up if you’d prefer?”
      The girl recoiled and reached for her phone. “I’ll have the janitor meet you there.” She spoke briefly with a man named Charlie, then nodded to Dylan. “He’ll let you in and wait with you.”
      “Thank you.” Dylan gave her a grin, but the effects from the previous shower had worn off. She watched him until he stepped into the elevator. 
      When he reached the fifteenth floor, he found the janitor waiting. The man must have been a football player in high school, at some point, and although his musculature had devolved into something akin to baby fat, he looked plenty strong enough to break Dylan in two if he tried anything funny. 
      Dylan smiled at him. “Appreciate the help.” 
      Charlie’s eyes narrowed, but he slid the keycard into the door and opened it. 
      Dylan went straight to the bathroom, not so much as glancing at the new furnishings in the apartment. He turned on the water and waited until steam began curling against the tiles. He peeped out into the hall via the mirror. Charlie leaned against the wall, eyes on his phone while he waited. 
      Quietly, Dylan eased the door shut and locked it. He only had a few minutes, but it would be enough. Dylan tore off his clothes, turned on the showerhead, and leapt into the water. 
      He almost sobbed with relief as the torrent cascaded over him, almost burning. The water ran gray as it scoured the city grime from his body. Dylan sighed and turned to let it gush over his face. 
      Far, far away, he heard Charlie’s voice, raised, and the doorknob shaking, but it seemed to have nothing to do with him. Life’s pains and humiliations faded in the deluge. The water brushed off the years, pushed him back through time to easier days. It was an August rain, warm and drenching, thundering in his ears. It hosed away dusty summer vacations, baptizing him with childhood’s untapped potential. It all came rushing back to him, the delights and obsessions of youth, the wide-open future, not yet shriveled by age and experience. It filled him with joy and laughter and set his whole body tingling. 
      A thud and a grunt echoed in another universe. He could die here, he realized, and be content. The water hugged him, lulled him, rocked him like a new mother, every droplet a kiss. How could he ever bear to leave? 
      Far, far, far away, a radio’s crunching blip, mumbled voices, and a hammering. A voice, calling to him. He didn’t recognize it. Didn’t care. 
      Dylan curled up in the tub as water rushed over him. He was safe. He was home. We’re born from water, he thought, and giggled. How pleasant if death is like returning to the womb, surrounded by warmth, the soul cradled and protected. 
      Happiness like he’d never felt swelled within him. His eyes burned with tears. He would burst trying to hold it. He would explode into stardust. Coiling up tight, he willed himself to encapsulate it, protect it, become it, all the potential energy in the universe blazing inside him. 
      The locksmith got the door open, and Mr. Langford pushed past Charlie into the bathroom. Steam fogged the air, blanking out the mirror. A pile of men’s filthy clothes lay on the tiles, and with a gesture, he stood aside to let Charlie sling back the shower curtain, braced for a fight. 
      But the shower was empty. The water whispered as it pattered into the empty tub. 
      Charlie frowned. “Mr. Langford, I’m telling you, he was in here!” 
      Mr. Langford peered into the tub. A gelatinous knot, smaller than a toenail, lay on the white porcelain, leeching a rivulet of pink. As he watched, the knot dissolved and vanished, rushing with the water down the drain. He shivered in the humid air.
      The apartment door clicked, and a moment later the tenant appeared. “What’s going on? When I got your text about the locksmith I thought I better come home. Did something happen?”
      Mr. Langford didn’t even know what to say. “No, just some trouble with the shower.” 
      Her eyebrows arched. “What trouble?
      “You haven’t noticed anything… unusual about the shower?”
      The tenant shook her head with a shrug. “No. To be honest, I haven’t ever used it. I always shower at the gym.” 
      Mr. Langford sighed with relief. “That’s probably for the best.”