During the first week of the second month at our new house, the sewer line busted. We were forced to use the bathroom at a nearby Dunkin Donuts.
“Sometimes it happens with older houses like yours,” the plumber said, as he inspected the cracked pipes in our basement.
“I get two or three calls like this a week.”
“Super,” I said. “What do we do about it?”
He pondered that for a second, creasing his dry lips. “Well, I can come by Tuesday next week with my guys, dig up the street, replace the line. Two day job,” he added.
He used a flashlight to inspect the inside of our pipes—a murky place of foul smells and sludgy residue. He’d seen my waste, and I felt violated.
Not that I could ask him to leave. The power imbalance was stark. The city sent us a letter saying they’d shut off our water if we didn’t get someone to fix the line. They called it a “public malfeasance.” Em and I had just moved into the house, practically just signed the closing papers. We looked this guy up online in a panic. He was part of a national chain of plumbers—some company with a catchy jingle. He gave us an estimate that stung my eyes.
“Good God,” Em said, after he left. “Want to just poop in the street from now on?”
“We’d get to know our neighbors,” I said.
This was not how I wanted to start our adventure as homeowners. The whole point of buying a house was to build equity, achieve financial freedom. No more dealing with landlords, no more throwing away money on rent. Instead, we were about to throw our money into a literal sewer. I couldn’t think of a better metaphor for the American Dream.
“I bet we can get a lower price,” Em said. “Maybe a local plumber?”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “This guy’s based in the city, I think.”
“I mean like from the neighborhood. We could ask around.”
“Can’t hurt,” I said.
That night, we went out for dinner at this no frills place that sold vegan diner food and great tater tots. After we split the check, Em asked our waitress if she knew any plumbers. Our waitress had one of those weathered faces, a face that could be anywhere between forty and sixty depending on the intensity of the light.
“Plumber, huh?” she repeated. “Been living here twenty years, had every issue in the book—leaks, burst pipes, you name it.”
“That’s great,” Em said. “Well, I don’t mean it’s great that you had so many issues. That stinks. I meant, I appreciate your expertise.”
“No problem, honey,” the waitress said. “It’s these old houses. Just a matter of time.”
“So, who do you usually call?” Em asked. “Like if your sewer is backed up?”
“Oh, now that’s a good question,” she said. “Brad Stone. That’s who you oughta use. Stone Cold Plumbers. Ads all over the city. A fox in a parka holding a wrench?”
“I don’t think we’ve seen it, actually,” Em told her. “Have you, Fred?”
I shook my head. It was my only contribution to the conversation. I wished for something more to say, but I felt out of sorts.
There was something off-putting about asking a waitress for plumbing advice. The two didn’t mesh. I didn’t like knowing that our waitress lived an entire life outside the vegan diner. This expansion of her personhood complicated the dining experience. I wanted things simple. I wanted things to be how they were before the house.
“You must’ve seen the ads,” the waitress said. “Stone’s top of the line. Won’t find a better deal in town.” She wrote down his number on the back of our receipt.
Em grinned. “Thanks so much for your help.”
Bundled up on our walk back to the house, Em popped the question. “So what do you think? Want to go with the Stone Cold Fox? Support the local economy?”
I shrugged. “We can check him out.”
After some research, we found out Brad Stone had no Internet presence whatsoever. It seemed impossible that nobody had ever reviewed him, that he could still run a business without a functioning website. While this struck me as dubious, it convinced Em that Stone was our guy. “He must be the real deal,” she said. “How else would he still be around?”
I couldn’t argue with her logic. It reminded me of that philosophy line: I think, therefore I am. It assumed we were all independent agents, thinking, feeling, acting. But if that were true, why did I feel so inert? Why did I feel swept along like driftwood in someone else’s current?
We called Stone up the next morning, told him the amount the other plumber offered and he laughed at us with a raspy smoker’s voice.
“You’re kidding?” he said. “That’s ridiculous.” He said it like, ree-dick-uhlus, emphasis on the dick. “I can do a grand less, easy,” he said. “I’ll be over tomorrow.”
“All right,” I said. “What time?” but he’d already hung up.
He came later that same day, unannounced with two other guys. They all wore jeans that didn’t quite fit. Stone’s shirt was white with a few paint stains.
“Oh hey!” Em said, as she opened the door. “Welcome in. Stone, right?”
“Yes ma’am,” he said. He didn’t introduce the other two guys. I rose from the table where my laptop was set up and walked over to them.
“I’m Emma,” Em said. “That’s Fred.”
She gestured to me, and I waved halfheartedly. We shook everybody’s hands. They had hard grips, calloused palms. I worked remotely for an accounting firm and had forgotten to change out of my sweatpants. My hands had the smooth, well-moisturized feel of a newborn.
“Cozy place,” Stone said. He smelled vaguely like chewing tobacco. His guys stared around. “So you said you got a sewage leak?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s right.”
“It’s in the basement,” Em added. She led the men down, and I sat there in my sweatpants and looked up NFL scores in case they asked.
A few minutes later, they came back upstairs. “Yeah we can do it no problem,” Stone said. “Seven fifty less than the other guy. You want us to come Wednesday?”
“That would be fantastic!” Em said, without bothering to check with me. “Make sure to let the water department know you’re coming.”
“Absolutely,” Stone said. “No problem. Pleasure meeting you.”
He and his guys gave my hand another vigorous shake and then left our house.
As soon as they’d gone, I walked over to Em, who’d migrated to the kitchen. “You sure you want to go with that guy? He felt kind of unprofessional to me.”
“What makes you say that?” Em asked, while filling a glass of water under the sink.
“He didn’t even tell us he was coming today,” I said.
She handed me the glass of water. “Well, we don’t have to go with him. We can call and tell him we’re going with a different plumber.”
I sipped Em’s water offering. “I just didn’t like his attitude.”
“Okay,” she said. “I get how you might feel that way.” She sounded disappointed. Specifically, disappointed in me. Like I was unfairly judging, and perhaps I was. I didn’t know the guy. I didn’t know plumbing. I didn’t know anything.
“But what do you think?” I asked.
“Just give Stone a call, let him know your decision.”
I thought back to when we were still blissfully ignorant apartment-dwellers. Fixing an infrastructure problem like this would’ve been a no-brainer. Like when the sink broke, I just called Javier, the super, and waited for him to take care of it. Or when that pigeon smacked against our window and landed with a thud on our fire escape—Javier was on it. Now, if a pigeon threw itself against one of our windows, I’d have to be the one to look death in the face and remove an unsightly bird corpse. That was something I hadn’t fully appreciated with the house. We had new responsibilities. We’d reached a milestone. The house was in both of our names. We were no longer simply two people. We were a unit. We had to come to consensus, communicate, solve our own problems. We had to be adults.
Em and I stood across from each other. I fingered the phone in my pocket, but I didn’t take it out. Maybe Em was doing the same thing. Neither of us called anybody.
Next day, Stone was a no-show. I called him a few times throughout the afternoon, but couldn’t leave a message because his voicemail wasn’t set up.
“Now what?” I asked Em. The sun had just begun to set, the last trickle of light coming in through white whisper curtains that were just a tad too long for our front window.
“I don’t know,” she said. “We can try again in fifteen?”
“Fine,” I said. But around ten minutes later Stone called me instead.
“Hey, this is Brad Stone, Stone Cold Plumbing,” he said.
“Yeah, this is Fred. You were supposed to fix our sewer line today.” I said it like I was dead inside, like Brad Stone had ripped out my still-beating heart.
“I know, I know,” he said. “I’m real sorry about that. My cement contractor canceled last minute on this other job and I had to take my guys out and do the work myself. Had to be done today. It’s completely my bad. Been crazy, you know?”
“Sounds like it,” I said.
“Fred, right?” he asked, as if saying my name meant we’d become buddies.
“Yep. Still me.”
“We can be there first thing tomorrow. I promise you, on my honor.”
I paused a moment to make him sweat it out. “Fine, okay.” I said. “See you at 8am.”
“8am?” Stone asked. “All right, all right. I can make it work. No issue.”
“Terrific,” I said.
Stone’s team eventually arrived around nine-fifteen in the morning and did the sewer work. Meanwhile, I stayed inside and put on headphones to try and block out the sound. But I could hear machines thrashing around, the ground getting ripped away, pipes unearthed. Em sat at her desk and calmly worked on a couple of illustrations for a vacuuming company she was freelancing for called Suckup, which was supposed to be disrupting the home cleaning industry. She said she picked them as clients since at least they were honest about how much they sucked.
I looked out the window a few times and every time there were at least four guys sitting around, smoking, watching a bulldozer pile rubble.
At four in the afternoon, the noises stopped. Stone knocked on our door a few minutes later. I opened it and stood in the doorway without letting him inside.
“Hey, I think we’re about done here,” he said, wiping his glove against his nose. I saw the snot glisten on his greying mustache.
I looked over the work. The street itself had become a gnarled mess, dirt and black top piled back into the excavation site in a mound. The cement on the sidewalk was still wet. I had absolutely no clue if he’d done it right.
“Is someone going to smooth out the road?” I asked.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said. “Streets Department takes care of that. One thing though. The job actually required some extra materials, more than what my guys estimated. So it’s actually gonna be this amount, that plus the rush job, you know?”
He handed me a paper slip, it was two hundred above the other plumber.
I looked at Em, and she just held her hands out to say: What do you want me to do about it? Then I wrote him the check.
Stone nodded and stuffed the check into his pocket. Em said, “Thanks so much for the help, Brad,” as if they were on a first name basis.
“That guy fleeced us,” I said to Em once Stone had gone.
“It costs what it costs,” she said. “And I think he did a pretty good job.”
“He should’ve at least given us a revised estimate beforehand,” I said.
“Sure, but it’s over now,” she said. “Let’s just try to savor our brand new pipes. No point dwelling on it. Amiright?”
Usually that kind of lame pun would remind me that things weren’t so bad, that Em was the love of my life, that it’s just money after all. But I could barely force a smile.
Over dinner that night, Em and I watched a comedy special skewering toxic masculinity. I wanted to laugh, but I kept thinking of Stone. How he’d bested me and still managed to get Em on his side. That didn’t strike me as funny. It struck me as pathetic.
Em paused the video. “Is everything okay?” she asked.
I kept quiet. The baseboard heater clanked distantly.
“Everything’s fine,” I said. “I’m fine.”
“You don’t seem fine.”
“All right,” I said. “I guess I’m not fine.”
Em grabbed my face. She swiveled my head around the room. “Look,” she said. “Look around us. We have a house. We can poop now. Whenever we want, wherever we want. Well, not wherever. In the toilet. The working toilet. It’s not all bad.”
I thought of our ruined sidewalk, the wreckage left behind. Then I pictured a sturdier version of me putting on a workman’s hat—the yellow, plastic kind. With my massive arms, I’d lift the rubble from our street, sweeping away the debris, pulverizing the jagged pieces of asphalt with my meaty hands until everything was smooth and like new again.
“I’ll call the Streets Department tomorrow,” I said. “About the rubble. It might take some time, but I’ll get it cleaned up. I want to make this work. I want this all to work out.”
Image Credit: René Magritte, L’Oiseau de Ciel (The Sky Bird), lithograph (1966)
Matt Goldberg is an emerging writer and MFA candidate at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Pif Magazine, The Hoosier Review, Apiary Magazine, and others. Find him on Twitter @mattmgoldberg.