A Sleeve Full of Courage

The basement is cool and dark, the smoky light of day obscured by purple globe thistles, deep green sweet pea vines, and a rogue elderberry sapling I’ve been meaning to cut away from in front of the tiny basement windows.

I’ve been meaning to do a lot of things around the house lately but lately, well lately, only the most pressing matters are attended to: 1)Child. 2)Eating. 3)Making a path through the house (for safety reasons, I can hear my own mom saying) which means pushing aside tiny clothes and laceless shoes and colorful books and kitchen utensils and wooden blocks and the occasional gnawed upon carrot that are spread about by Pressing Matter Number One.

Then there’s taking care of turkeys, chickens, goats, sheep, and barn cats (who would argue they are quite self sufficient thank you). Then there’s the garden (see Pressing Matter Number Two which also relates to Number One). Then there’s working to bring in some cash to pay for such things (see all of the above) all for the enjoyment of home ownership and a country life.

Sometimes in old houses such as ours (or new houses such as yours, perhaps) the kitchen sink stops draining. This, of course, happens on cue during the least opportune time for the sink to block up like the holidays or (like me) cooking for an expectant crowd. I needed to take action.

I like to think of myself as a handy lady. I can do basic wiring and plumbing, skills acquired mostly during my boating years when there was not an option to call a plumber or electrician when the toilet backed up or a crucial piece of equipment needed power. On land there are options but they are quite expensive options. Besides, I like to fiddle with wrenches and pipes and love the satisfaction of clearing a drain or replacing a leaking gasket. And I’m thrifty enough that I don’t want to pay for someone else to do something that may be a little uncomfortable but not totally out of the scope of my doing. I like getting stuff done, fixed, improved.

I do not love rotting food waste pouring into my sleeve, but that is what happens when you slide into the crawlspace in the basement after cleaning out all the pipes underneath the sink and still have water rising half way up the sink basin in a murky brown chunky mess and so you know you have to open the outlet thingy in the pipe in the crawlspace underneath the kitchen and when your wrench loosens the threaded cap thingy the water (if you can call the chunky mess that) rushes out and you wonder for a moment if you are lower than the septic tank and if the contents of the septic tank (shit, lots and lots of shit) are going to spew out of the pipe you are positioned under if you continue to loosen the cap.

This is all happening really quickly and you wonder if your husband and baby upstairs will hear you calling for help if you start to flood the basement with shit due to your amateur plumbing naivety and if a real plumber will come fast enough to avoid emptying the entire contents of the septic tank into your dirty but not that dirty basement. You wonder if you will get shit in your mouth and contract a disease but then you remember it is your shit, your husband’s shit, your baby’s shit, maybe a friend who stopped by for tea’s shit, and you don’t think anyone of them are sick but this also doesn’t make you feel better about the situation.

Instead of just stopping there, you (I) decide to just see if the spewing will simply abate. I have a bowl to catch water but that is quickly abandoned as there isn’t a flat surface on which to place said bowl. So there I am with a wrench, damp with fatty food particles in gurgling brown water still spewing out of the pipe, loosening the cap and hoping for the best. I cringe when small chunks ooze down my arms, splatter onto my hair. I try to avoid drips on my face but I have given up any hope for cleanliness and feel the slow drips of something un-liquid down my chin.

I am frowning with disgust but also smiling a little on the inside when the spew turns to a trickle and I am able to take the cap off completely. Septic disaster averted! Time to get down to business. I reach my hand into the 2inch pipe. I pull out white (lard, tallow, schmaltz) and black speckled(coffee grounds?) chunks the size of my fist. Chunks! In our drain. I kind of want to throw up but I also kind of like seeing how far in I can reach, how much drain snot I can claw out with my bare hands. It’s kind of like the satisfaction you feel after cleaning all that unnameable black crusty stuff off the stove or after a good flossing of your teeth after eating corn.

My hand is relatively small, but not that small or as flexible as it needs to be to really get at the problem. So I uncoil the cheap metal “snake” I bought last time the bathtub got clogged and push the springy metal into the opening. I only get a few feet before the claw on the end is met with a solid mass it cannot penetrate. On my back, dripping with rotting food waste, headlamp falling over my eyes with each forceful shove of the little snake, cooking to do in the kitchen above, I give up after several minutes of the snake slipping through my hands in the deepening stench.

So close! Yet so very far.

After crawling out of the crawlspace and slopping up the basement stairs, I push open the door of my husband’s office to give him a look that says EWWW to the millionth degree, his face mirroring this sentiment as he sits clean as a whistle at his desk while our daughter sleeps on his chest (that’s an exaggeration, he is farmer and somewhat hygienically challenged). I take off my clothes and jump into the shower to scrub the smell of putrid lard off my body. It doesn’t work.

Don’t.

Smell.

Your.

Hands.

I say to myself. But of course I smell them anyway with a fair measure of disgust and twisted pride. I continue to scrub.

I call the plumber. He doesn’t show up that day as he says he will but comes the next morning. I tell him I cleaned out the pipes, I tell him where the outlet in the basement is. We go take a look. I ask him if that’s where he will snake it from. “Not on a bet I wouldn’t!” he says, mildly disgusted.

Huh.

After a long pause I ask why. He looks at me like I’m an idiot. I don’t let him answer but say, “because shit will spew all over you if you go that way?” He looks disgusted and nods. The plumber, the guy who does this for a living and probably has to deal with far nastier problems then a clogged kitchen sink, looks disgusted. He gasps a little when I say that’s what I had done. I feel foolish but I also felt kind of proud. Even if I had been covered with something akin to shit. Even if my effort had been for naught. I could feel myself once again trying to secure my place as a non-girly-girl in the world. A tough, adventurous, non-girly-girl covered in chunky rotting food, I could imagine the plumber laughing to his buddies.

The plumber drilled into a vent on the side of the house far above the fray and snaked the goddamn pipe clear in less than 30 minutes and charged the exorbitant amount I feared. But the sink drained and I was back on track, stinky hands and all.

What’s the moral of the story?

Leave it to the experts? Hell no. I hope I never have to hire that guy again. Now I know his tricks and maybe next time I’ll clear the clog and get on with my life without the sludge in my sleeves.

Maybe that’s the moral: don’t be afraid to try to learn new tricks. Be observant. Maybe I gave up too soon and I was one snaky rotation away from clearing the pipe. Maybe not. But I learned something. We can always learn something. (within reason, of course. Don’t go trying to fix your own power lines or something far far far out of range like that)

Or maybe, as I told my one year old as she crawled around the floor while I mopped up the mess from my under-the-sink-tinkerings, the moral is: become a plumber. Make bank!

Or maybe it’s even more base than that: don’t be afraid of your own refuse. We consume, we discard. Make friends with the outcome of the latter.

Or stop doing the dishes. You choose.

Jenny Goff is a sailor, farmer, chef, and writer living on an island north of Seattle, WA.

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