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Sunday, November 25, 2012

The rest of the story...in pieces.

A couple days ago I posted an excerpt from a chapter of the larger project I'm working on.  Based on the feedback that generated, I'm bringing you the rest of the chapter in three pieces. Trilogies sell, baby. I'm ripping a page out of the Star Wars handbook and presenting the series out of order. What follows is the prequel to the piece I published first, in which our hero grappled with a plumbing problem that reminded her of the time her father cat-sat and got his first up close and personal experience with hairballs. Without further ado....
“Respect the water,” our parents would remind us every year during our annual family vacation at the Outer Banks.  Back then I assumed they were referring to the Atlantic Ocean and its powerful waves.  Only as a first-time homeowner did I understand they were making a broader statement.  Not only should I respect the tides that ran along the beaches but also the stuff that ran through the pipes of my house.  The second kind of water didn’t land with a dramatic crash every few seconds like the Atlantic did, but I came to understand that it could still pack a pretty good wallop.

My first lesson in water respect as an adult came in March of 2003, a day before the party I had volunteered to host for a friend who was moving to the other Washington.  More than fifty guests had RSVP’d “yes,” and I had planned for that.  I had not, however, planned for a plumbing mutiny. 

Rebel activity exhibits certain common characteristics, such as showing signs of discord before launching the actual coup.  Those signs might manifest in a benign form, like a chant-filled demonstration, or something more ominous, like  explosives.  My plumbing started hinting at its nonconformist tendencies shortly after I moved in.  The bathtub drained slowly sometimes, and on more than one occasion it took the commode a couple tries to perform its assigned role.  As warnings went these were as menacing as a two-person sit-in on a park bench in front of Mayberry City Hall.  I paid them no heed.  The plumbing resented not being taken seriously and telegraphed its evil intent as I was getting ready for work that Friday.

        Just before leaving, I popped into the bathroom in case my daily walk and metro trip took longer than expected.  When I flushed, the toilet obliged in sound only.  Subsequent attempts failed to do anything other than raise the water level in the bowl.  It didn’t take long for me to recognize that I couldn’t quell this conflict on my own. I picked up the phone and called for reinforcements.


       “Hello, dolly!” he said.  His use of a childhood term of endearment fit the moment better than he knew.  I understood plumbing as well as your average five year-old.  I explained the problem and told him I didn’t have time to work on it.  I waited for him to volunteer to “come over and take a look.”  Not that having my father “take a look” would have done much good in a plumbing crisis.  His trademark, all-purpose “jiggle the handle” solution came up short sometimes, and I knew this was one of them.  I’d already tried it.

        Instead of offering to come over, he surprised me and said, “Ooh, can’t help you there, honey. That one’s way above my paygrade. You’re going to have to call Robert.”  My parents had stumbled on to Robert a few years earlier.  They called their usual guy when their washer died, only to learn that his death had preceded the appliance’s.  His widow referred them to Robert, a plumbing and appliance savant. 

       Robert was short and wiry, unlike his hair, which was long and sleek.   He tended to chat while he worked and covered subjects you’d expect at a dinner party but not during an appliance repair session.  While he diagnosed an ailing apparatus he might talk about an excellent novel he just read, a favorite new wine, or his affection for holiday-themed dish towels.  My parents had attempted to classify him and came up with: part Rhodes Scholar, part Redneck. 

        They forgot “empathetic listener.”  When I placed the distress call that Friday morning, Robert said he’d be panicked if he were in my shoes.  Few homeowners would relish the prospect of a showdown between an angry toilet and fifty party guests.  He rearranged his schedule and agreed to come over while I was at work.  He phoned me a few hours later with the good news that he’d cleared the blockage in the master bathroom.  The bad news? While he was there he turned on all the faucets and both showers, and he flushed the other toilet.  All of them backed up.

      “What does that mean?” I asked. It sounded like the house equivalent of major organ failure. I hoped dialysis was available for dwellings.
        “Something’s blocking the main drain,” he said.  The term “main drain” meant nothing to me. I didn’t know what or where it was.  My mind conjured up the stuff of legend, specifically the alligators rumored to lurk in the bowels of New York’s subway system.   Robert must have interpreted my silence as confusion, because he made another attempt in the vernacular.  “You gotta get your pipes snaked,” he said.

          I still didn’t know exactly what he meant but any procedure described in that kind of language was bound to be invasive and unpleasant.

Tune in tomorrow for Part II, which is really Part III, because this was Part I and, well, you get the picture. 

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