The Plumber — A Tragi-Comedy

by Steven McBrearty
            My kitchen sink is clogged, filled with a thick, disgusting sludge.  Divorced, my children grown, I must face this existential crisis, this apotheosis of angst, alone, unsupported, forlorn.  After repeated, failed attempts at plunging—the plunger suction cup becoming disconnected from the handle—I call a plumber, my voice reedy and thin, quivering on the verge of breakdown.  This is an all-purpose service company, actually, handling a wide range of household breakdowns.  They recognize me from my telephone number, providing a huge surge of acceptance.  They know me!  I am known.  I’m not just a number—I’m a number with a name and address and a credit card on file.
            “We have an opening now—we’ll send a technician right out,” the receptionist says.  A rough, untutored girl, by her voice, but beautiful in soul, pure in spirit.
            “Right now?” I say.
“Right now,” the receptionist says.  “He’s already on his way.”
“He’s already on his way!” I repeat blindly, blissfully. 
In my living room I wait pacing, having e-mailed my supervisor of my plight.
“I’ll work from home until I get in,” I write.  He offers standard words of corporate encouragement:  “See you when you get here.  Cheers.”
The technician, the plumber, arrives—always a moment of truth, a huge pregnant moment of hope and fear and stark recognition.  This is reality.  This is happening.  There is no turning back.  We greet each other in the entrance doorway, shake hands heartily, exchange names.  His name is Nate.  Clad neatly in black slacks and white uniform shirt, he is young, in his late 20s, a ruggedly handsome fellow in a fair-skinned, blond, Austrian-Swedish-Norwegian sort of way, with a phlegmatic but generally congenial manner, picture Rolf in “The Sound of Music” before he turns Nazi.  Nate can understand instantly that I cannot perform any kind of home repair function beyond replacing a light bulb.  It must be some sort of subliminal vibe that our kind put out, a pheromone that travels the airwaves.  It’s like a horse knowing that I cannot ride. 
            “So you have a sink that won’t drain?” Nate says, legs spread, knees bent, ready to fire out.
            “Yeah,” I say, trying to nonchalant it, in the parlance of a baseball player.  “It’s been getting worse and worse for about a week now.  It won’t drain at all.”  I fight off tears welling in my eyes. 
            He nods, striding purposefully forward as I direct him to the kitchen, equipment bag dangling in his right hand.  He carefully inspects the sink.  He pulls the cabinet door open and peers in underneath, crouching on the balls of his feet.  Some subtle signal from him commands me to move back. 
            Thus alerted, I stand apart as he settles in, like a surgeon donning mask and gloves, giving him room to operate.  I make myself appear receptive to information exchange.  He does not provide information.  He is silent.  He is a veritable Buddha.
            “How’s it looking?” I throw out timidly.
            “Can’t tell yet,” he says, biting off the words like somebody chewing a tough piece of meat.  As if I should know this. As if I am, in fact, an idiot.  I am an idiot, of course, a person bereft of common sense or general knowledge.  Rebuffed, reduced in status, I now pretend that I am disinterested in his little ongoing procedure.  I pretend that I have other things to do—important things, high-level, college-educated office-type things. 
            “Let me know if you need anything,” I toss out haphazardly.  Head inside the cabinet, he does not answer. 
            I repair to my living room, adjacent to the kitchen but protected by a wall.  I sit quietly at the computer there, shoulders hunched, face scrunched, checking e-mails and cruising the Internet.  I watch a YouTube of a Monty Python skit involving famous philosophers playing soccer.  High-level stuff.  Anxiety builds in my chest like a spreading virus. 
            Finally, Nate speaks, accosting me as he stands just beyond the living room wall. 
            “There’s a lot of grease,” he says accusingly, almost angrily.  I have no response to this.  Yes, there is grease.  There is grease that must be caused by my slovenly behavior, my sordid life-style, my role as single parent to two recent college grads.  I think of excuses.  “I had a party and people dumped grease down the drain.”  “I leased the house to a band of gypsies.”  The excuses are all lame.  Like a wraith, Nate disappears back beyond the wall.
            He spends the ensuing half hour tromping back and forth to his van, taking equipment out, lugging equipment in, while I sit staring at the computer screen with a pretend happy face.
            I see that Nate has brought in “the snake,” technically a motorized augur that is designed to slice through sludge and tree roots and other stubborn objects.  It is a dangerous and powerful tool.  Used unskillfully, an augur could damage plumbing and cause injury to the user himself.  As Nate settles into the grueling procedure, I tiptoe in to briefly observe.  He stands low near the kitchen counter, pulling the snake like a tug-of-war participant, breathing hard, grunting savagely.  I feel that I have brought him to this.  I am filled with remorse.  I am a bad person.  There is no salvation for me.  His breathing and grunting rise to a grand crescendo, a staccato huh-huh-huh that makes me cringe with anguish and despair.  It is as if he is grappling for his very soul, and by extension, my soul as well.  I return to the computer where I Google “Prayers for Serenity.”
            At last, the horrible whirring and clanging end.  Nate’s heavy breathing subsides.  The house is suddenly as silent as a mountain valley at sunrise.  I sit quietly, hands resting on the computer keyboard.  My heart flutters spasmodically.  After a moment, Nate emerges from beyond the wall like an angry ninja warrior.  His shirt is sweat-stained and his hair is matted to his head.  His eyes are wild.
            “I found the clog,” he says, as if he tracked down a dangerous criminal.  “It was in the grease trap.  Somebody might have thrown some leftover rice down there or it could have been egg shells or shrimp peels.  Rice expands in water.  I pushed it out.”
            “You pushed it out?” I say.
            “Yeah,” he says, “I pushed it out.  It’s gone.”
            It was as if he had told me my blood tests were clear.  It was as if he had told me I was accepted to my first choice of college.
            “That’s fantastic,” I say.  “That’s incredible.”  Nate nods tightly, the modest hero accepting post-game praise and adulation. 
            “Yeah,” he says quietly, “Yeah, it is.”
            As Nate copies down my credit card information for payment I begin to tell him details of my personal life.  I’m not sure why.  I tell him about the divorce from my wife of 18 years, my two children in their early twenties, their dogs I keep occasionally, the bankruptcy I had filed nearly a decade before, my search for a woman to love, my fear of growing older, my transfer at work to a new position I did not enjoy.  Nate listens with scarce acknowledgement, writing out my bill with a small, inscrutable smile.  When he is finished, he hands me a clipboard with bill attached.  I sign without scrutiny.  What’s another $452.81 in the credit card debit sheet?

            As Nate prepares to leave, we shake hands again in a spasm of strong emotion.  I move to hug him but refrain.  When he leaves, closing the front door softly behind him, it feels like closing a chapter in my life story.  I stand by the window, spying through venetian blinds as I wait for his van to drive away.  Warily, then, I return to the kitchen to run the tap.  Water runs down the drain unfettered.  I run the tap wantonly, promiscuously, effulgently.  Life is good.  Life is good again. 

STEVEN McBREARTY's story collection, “Christmas Day on a City Bus,” was published in 2011 by McKinney Press.  In addition, he has published more than 30 short stories, humor pieces, and non-fiction articles and have received several honors.  “East of Paris, West of Berlin” is listed in the “Editor’s Selections—Best ofPotpourri” on the web pages of the magazine.  “The Sacker,” which appeared in Short Story Writer’sShowcase, was selected by a high school student for a statewide Texas University Scholastic League reading contest entry.  “Skipper and Kevin Visit Barbie’s Pad” was selected as a finalist in an Austin Chronicle short story contest, and published.  "Turning Blue" was published in the May 2007 edition ofChick Lit Review.  *62” was published in the January/February 2008 edition of Chick Lit Review.   “Kingston: The Lizard, The Man,” was accepted for publication and recording by Stories That Lift.  “The Shorthorn No. 3” was published in Flatman Crooked magazine.  “Christmas Day on a City Bus” and “A Situation Comedy” appeared in Disappearing City literary magazine.  “Christmas Day on a City Bus” was honored as “Featured Prose” in the January 1, 2009 issue of Disappearing City.  “Thanksgiving for Sex” was published in the April quarterly edition of Freight Train magazine.  “Jane Fountain” received an Honorable Mention in the Coq and Bull literary magazine contest and published in the June 2009 edition of the magazine.  “Night of Hope” was published in the inaugural issue of Concisely magazine. 

Other stories have appeared in The Prose MenagerieSlugfest, ltd.; Short Stories Bi-MonthlyWords of WisdomNocturne HorizonsBalcones magazine; and Carve magazine.  


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