A few days back, wife Brenda was minding her own business in the Jowers kitchen, when a mighty spew of foam, funk and unknown chunks started rising up in the kitchen sink. She wailed up to my office, “Yo, Wally! The sink’s giving birth to something. It looks like some kind of watery Rosemary’s baby. I think you’d better come down here.”
So I hustled down the stairs and found the sink filling up with what looked like the water and suds that just left the upstairs washing machine, along with some other stuff that I recognized, but didn’t really want to acknowledge. “That water’s coming up fast,” I said. “She’s going to overflow.” I grabbed a trash can and two pots, and I handed a pot to Brenda. “Start bailing,” I said. “I’m not sure where this came from, but I know we don’t want it running all over the floor.”
We bailed about as fast as the water rose, and we kept the mess contained to the sink, the pots and the trash can.
I knew what we had. It was main sewer backup. I’d run into it once before, twentysomething years ago, back in South Carolina. There, we had a septic system that choked on the unspeakable stuff we’d been flushing for the last 20 years. I wanted a quick cure, so I went outside with a pickax and starting looking for the blockage. I found it, and I learned a valuable lesson: Never rear back and plunge a pickax into a clogged-up sewer line, especially when that very clog means you don’t have anywhere to bathe.
This time around, I knew better than to try fixing the clogged drain myself. The Jowers main drain is 90 years old, the guilty part of the pipe is deeper in the ground than I’m willing to dig, and I don’t want to see, smell, taste or feel any more sewer splatter.
So I called a plumbing company. They sent a very nice man, named Bleu, who walked in my front door, shook my hand, then headed straight for the basement. Fifteen minutes later, Bleu came back upstairs and found me in my office. “Mr. Jowers,” he said, “I’m going to have to go back to the shop and get another man. We’ll be back in a little while.”
Well, I’ve been around enough house-fixing jobs to know that when the labor force doubles in the first 15 minutes, the project’s going to be big, ugly and expensive.
Bleu came back with another nice plumber, Keith. An hour later, they found me in the kitchen. “Mr. Jowers,” Bleu said, “the problem’s right under your foundation wall, and we’re going to have to knock down a retaining wall to get there. You want to come down and see what I’m talking about?”
“First tell me how nasty it is,” I replied.
“Well,” Bleu said, “it’s the kind of nasty I’m not really used to yet, and I’ve been doing this for a long time. For one thing, that pipe’s been leaking into the ground for a while. Not to gross you out or anything, but we have run into some maggots.”
“That’s all I need to know,” I shuddered. “Y’all just carry on. I don’t need to see any of it. Just let me know when it’s done.”
Right here and now, I want to offer high praise to anybody who’ll work on a clogged-up, blown-out, 90-year-old sewer pipe. Clearly, Bleu and Keith were working in Level Eight of hell. That’s a real burden, considering there are only nine levels, or so said Dante. In his description of Level Eight, Dante wrote of unfortunate folks suffering in an “amphitheater-shaped pit of despair, wholly of stone and of an iron color.” By golly, that’s my basement.
In Level Eight, says Dante, some poor folks find themselves covered with the very stuff that was oozing out of my sewer pipe. Even though I didn’t go down in the basement, I could hear Bleu and Keith working and talking down there. Just as Dante said, you don’t want to go into Level Eight without putting your hands over your ears first. People in Level Eight are saying things and making noises that you really don’t want to hear.
Bleu and Keith are better men than me. I’d never make it in Level Eight. I’m a Level One guy myself. Dante said Level One is a place with “rolling fresh meadows illuminated by the light of reason.” He added, “There is no punishment here, and the atmosphere is peaceful, yet sad.” That’s about as much hell as I could stand.
Bleu and Keith wrestled with my ancient plumbing for three whole workdays. They stretched out on their bellies and dug with pieces of scrap pipe. They tore down a concrete-block wall, bare-handed. They heard the screams of a million dying maggots. Last Thursday afternoon, they made the Jowers house safe for laundering, bathing and toilet flushing. Just as I feared, the job was big, ugly and expensive. It cost me about as much as a decent used car. But considering that the hard work of Bleu and Keith was the only thing keeping us Jowerses from washing up every morning in a Wal-Mart rest room, it was worth every dang penny.