Calling the Plumber

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(HOST) For commentator Caleb Daniloff, calling a service professional into his home sends him on a roller coaster of emotions.

(DANILOFF) For the past several weeks, my wife and I had been battling a nasty clog in our bathroom pipes. When we turned the faucet in one sink, gritty water backed up in the other until the twin basins were filled like soup bowls. It took a good half hour to drain, and left in its wake a filthy Braille.

Sure, we plunged – and plunged – only to bring up darker, oilier water. During one session, my wife extracted a curler and long twists of greasy hair. The house was a rental once and, for a while, a day care. Who knew what kind of fall-out had gathered in the works.

We tried the home remedies: Drano, muriatic acid, and the don’t-look-too-closely-maybe-it’ll-fix-itself approach. For a while, it looked as if option three had potential. When left alone, there was give; the water didn’t rise as high, wasn’t as murky. I advocated lots of leaving it alone. Plunger in hand, my wife just called me lazy.

But it went deeper than that. The next option was the plumber, a move that always stirs in me turbulent emotions. As soon as I pick up the phone, my sense of self-sufficiency begins crumbling, and I might as well be bumming change in front of an ATM.

The dispatcher said she’d send someone over in the afternoon. And with that, the ball was rolling – a strange man in the intimate spaces of my home, a man with skills. Should I leave some tools lying about – a copy of Bowhunter on the toilet tank? But I was running late and couldn’t afford to care.

When I got back from work, the van was parked at the house. I found the plumber – I’ll call him Mark – leaning over the sinks with a perplexed look, the sharp smell of industrial grade acid lacing the air. He hadn’t figured out the problem and had a colleague bringing over a power snake with a thirty-five-foot reach. Then he showed me where someone before had busted through our bedroom wall to get at the pipes.

“But once you get into something like that,” he said, “you just don’t know where it’s gonna end.”

There it was, my bogeyman: a bunch of guys in my bedroom wielding dry saws and big wrenches going after a mystery. I wracked my brain for our checking and savings balances, vacation money, any part-time jobs I’d seen recently. I felt sick and told Mark I had to run an errand.

“Hopefully, I won’t be here when you get back,” he said.

“Is there that kind of hope?” I asked, brightening.

“There’s always hope,” he said.

But when I pulled in the driveway, my heart sank. The van hadn’t moved. I made my way to the bathroom, where both sinks were filled. Mark showed me some wire mesh wrapped around the snake tip, and a chunk of metal he’d pulled up. I wasn’t sure how to take this but didn’t want to ask too many questions, not with Mark’s deadly evening rates looming.

But when he released the plungers, the water levels instantly started dropping. I stole a glance at Mark and felt almost smitten. I turned back to the sinks. Within the water, a tiny cyclone appeared, undulating from each drain, twin twisters dancing beneath Mark’s magic fingers. I half expected to hear a chorus of angels, a god and his acolyte bathed in a golden light. Of course, I knew once the bill came this moment would be lost forever. So, listening to the low, clear-throated gurgle of the emptying basins, I turned to Mark and asked if he wouldn’t mind filling them one more time.

Caleb Daniloff is a freelance writer, and recipient of the 2005 Ralph Nading Hill Jr. Literary Prize.

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