Monday, April 1, 2013

(April Fools')

    In order to sing, sadness
will have to drink black water.
 Jose Luis Hidalgo

the prank ~ 

Scotty knew the service workers who were working in his rural farmhouse were playing pranks on his wife Susanna and him, it just took Scotty awhile to prove it to himself and then Susanna, because, you see, Scotty, like most people, think most people are basically good. Who'd waste their time on having to knuckle under at hard labor, never mind pull pranks? You'd be surprised.

It all started simply enough when Scotty's carpentry work put him in touch with a plumber four decades ago when Scotty was building a house for a young couple in the wooded river valley where he lived. He had worked on plenty of jobs like barn roofs, additions, decks, porches and rebuilding rotten sills on old homes, but on this new house job he'd need a plumber. Danny would be his plumber, and they stuck together working jobs together for thirty years. Until Danny picked up an illness in his lungs — maybe too much plumbing apparatus and soldering from the old days got bad into his system and Danny was sick, but being Danny, he kept on working. Plugging away.

One of Danny's last jobs was actually for Scotty in his farmhouse when Scotty had some time to remodel, or better rebuild, all the old bathroom. He tore out the walls, ceiling and even the floor of the tiny unit. Somehow he kept the cast iron claw tub right where it was by floating the heavy beast on supporting 4 x 4s as he slid the old floor out from under the tub and built in new stocky floor joists and set down a double floor under the tub. The tub never moved an inch. In fact Scotty and Susanna kept on using the tub and even the make-shift shower by walking a gang plank over the exposed old floor joists and dirt crawl space below. They remember in the old days with the bathroom, which was really a modified outhouse, when a rat would visit after their baths or shower and nibble on the thick bar of soap in its porcelain dish. The rat, it turned out, lived somewhere down in all that dirt. Scotty would hand dig out all the dirt to deepen the crawl space and fit in the joists and eventually got himself down a new floor and then prettied up the room. Decorative tiles from Mexico were delivered pretty reasonably in a rumpled box. Three colors of paint went on the woodwork. A new shower curtain made the room.


Danny worked in this new bathroom, but just barely. He kept his rates reasonable enough, though his labor was laborious with his sickness and he ended up installing most appliances backwards or awkward or not right at all. Scotty and Susanna knew things were past desperate when Danny tried to convince them at the end of a long day that the hot water coming out of their new shower unit into that old cast iron tub was all they were going to get. He couldn't figure out, for whatever reason, how to give them the cold water. The handles were backwards, so was the sink, and the toilet leaked around the grease hub. It was all bad. Scotty and Susanna felt terrible for Danny. He'd always been a hard worker. He lost a son in one of those bogus Central American wars. Scotty and Danny talked about that for some years when they worked together. Now it was growing late into the summer evening and none of the bathroom was working right. The bill from Danny was around $800 at that point and a lot of it was for labor. Scotty had most of the appliances already on hand. To be fair to Danny, Scotty offered Danny $400 for his labor, knowing full well he'd have to pay out to another plumber $400 to repair all of Danny's mistakes. Pretty close, it came to $401 to a much younger plumber.

This new-plumber came recommended to Scotty through one of the grapevines he could tap into. The first thing the young new-plumber did was put his eye onto Susanna, easily old enough to be his mother, and Scotty and Susanna knew the decades of gentlemanly Danny were gone forever. The money owed to Danny went to the new-plumber because Scotty and Susanna certainly had no more money than Danny. They were loyal to him for those thirty years through thick and thin, but not past thin. Scotty believed he had to share with Danny that it isn't a full payday when one operates thinner than thin. That's loyalty, too.


The pranksters, who came in disguises as plumbers and furnace installers and even well-diggers, had a bone to pick. Perhaps for how they believed Danny was treated. It didn't matter to this squad how Scotty and Susanna were treated. They all were male and they all congregated each morning at a local plumbing warehouse shooting the shit and loading up their work trucks and playing and slapping at the latest news and work gossip. Danny, despite his loyalty with Scotty and vice-versa, and feeling slighted, and of course never revealing his defective performance on the job with Scotty, would uncharacteristically bad-mouth Scotty, even though Scotty couldn't believe Danny would stoop that low — maybe Danny's wife, out of protection for her hurting husband, got on the phone with others and planted some seeds. It didn't really matter how it happened, the pranksters had heard enough and they believed it was their civic duty to practice some payback.

Scotty saw it coming. 

Susanna, never raised with brothers, just took men as they were. If you're a jerk she wanted nothing to do with you; if you were honest and hardworking, you spoke her language.

The pranksters arrived first, over two years, as a plumber who repaired Danny's mistakes and got paid the same day by Scotty and Susanna — kinda nice. This same plumber installed a check valve into the farmhouse artesian well and tightened it too tight (it happens), causing the valve to split and erupt spasms of air throughout the simple plumbing network in the old house. Scotty and Susanna didn't quite know what was happening, so they were ideal for the prank. They had lived years before ever having running water, or even a hot shower, living on drawing water out of their neighboring woods river, and heating all their hot water on their wood-fired kitchen stove. Dodging the constant spasms in the plumbing just got to be more a curiosity for them of modern conveniences and what foibles come with it, which half the time they could do without, and resort back to their big galvanized tub, which they sat in for years by the woodstove hearth, with all the lights off and a kerosene lamp closeby. Take that spasms!

The new-plumber with the pranks refused to do what Scotty asked which was to return back into the well to see what was happening down there. The new-plumber wanted to install a large air relief tank and other hardware that made no sense to either Scotty or Susanna and this old house they rebuilt with their own hands. What you build with your own hands goes up from your hands into the shoulders and head and mind. Especially if you are working acoustically, slowly, with hand tools and together as companions. What the new-plumber was calling for made little sense. So one day the homeowners called up a local well-digger, thinking someone with underground knowledge and artesian well instinct, had to be called in. That brought Gray into the picture. He came to the house almost as soon as he was called — what with getting over shoulder surgery — and he had a bruiser co-worker with him who helped Gray lift the guts of the well up and out onto the deep snow, now middle of winter and 20-degrees. Between the two workers they quickly diagnosed the defective check valve the new-plumber had installed and they replaced that with a new one and slid the well entrails back snug into place. Job done. Big smiles. No more spasms.

The new-plumber caught wind of this, paid Gray out of his own pocket, didn't charge labor to Scotty and Susanna — just for working parts — and despite Scotty insisting he was fine to keep working at their house, the new-plumber said he wanted nothing to do with them. More hard feelings. First ill Danny, now a new-plumber. The next thing Scotty and Susanna knew the new-plumber had quit his business, maybe having lost his confidence as a plumber, and tried his hand at other work, until that didn't pan out and then slowly but surely he inched his way back into his plumbing truck and got himself back onto his shaky feet. Which is always good news, since he is young and has a wife and family.


The gas furnace installer that came to Scotty and Susanna didn't like what seemed to be happening to the new-plumber (and neither did a town road working friend talking one day to Scotty & Susanna — word gets around) and when he was hired to install a gas furnace in their stone-backed and log-joist cellar (1/4 of the house had a cellar, the rest of the house was undug because of ledge) it slowly but certainly got revealed he was the newest prankster to set up shop in this house. It would take almost two years to reveal, after Scotty took apart their old oil furnace (that he had installed with Danny eons ago) and upgraded with something gas and efficient. Scotty and Susanna heated their 1790 saltbox with firewood year round, and cooked with wood for decades, they always liked a little backup heat for those nights plunged down to 20-below zero, and when they were away all day in the winter and liked an hour of heat to take the chill off as they rebuilt their wood fire. This furnace installer smiled and said he understood. He then took them for a ride that stretched over two years of a surprisingly dis-functioning furnace the catalogs described as "bullet proof." The furnace worked fine for the first hour and that was the maximum time Scotty ever turned the furnace on. However, one winter evening Scotty and Susanna had come home from a long day of woodcutting in the snow and were bushed and fell asleep after they had their fire built and the furnace was running nicely, but it went past its usual hour and suddenly turned to air-conditioning (a component that came with the furnace as well) which woke the two up chilled and wondering. Believe it or not this joking would last a year with a furnace installer who played them like a top (and he's already fully paid). . .returning however he wished with one more computer part for the furnace, or maybe needing one more air vent, and somewhere along the line he let down his guard and out slipped his admiration for the new- plumber who left this house disgraced. Them-all-is-buddies.

Susanna saw this guy was no good and started backtracking to the furnace company itself, and the dealer who sold the furnace, and nobody on that end liked what Susanna was revealing about the furnace installer. It just took a little homework. One day he figured it was time to button up the job right and get out and he did. So long.

Now air had returned to the couple's plumbing system, actually worse than the first time with the new-plumber when it lasted six months at a more staccato pattern. This recent air spasm was working like an LP record with a skip in one song. The plumbing works well with its normal pattern like a song plays on a record without a hitch. Although a skip in a song also works with a rhythmic pattern all its own, and this was how this air spasm was now coming to the plumbing. Scotty and Susanna would get one or two days of a quiet glide and then by day three (or the third song) the spasm would start to increase into day four which was full spastic spray, cloudy glasses of water, fits and starts toilet refills, and sinks and showers that barked.

Who to call? 

New-plumber is history. The couple are still licking their wounds from the furnace dolt. They won't even talk about another gas installer, who was quite bright and did install impeccably a bathroom wall heater for them, and then he got crazy with other ideas and they had to let him go. Before he trailed off he made sure to tell Scotty and Susanna just how their furnace installer operates with snide comments and a trick up his sleeve. "You'll never see him when things get bad, trust me. He'll never drive out your way on those lousy roads." It sort of became prophetic — they had to beg to get the man out there to fix his initial pranks.  Remember, he liked the new-plumber, and you can bet he liked Danny too. Hell, Scotty and Susanna liked Danny. But then they knew the whole story. Pranksters work only from their story. Along with ounces and ounces of frustration, too much time on their hands since they always seem "on" and days are long so they have to fill it up with something. Maybe porno, maybe popcorn, maybe pranks. Pranks is a sort of porno popcorn.

With the latest water spasms, thoughts returned to Gray. Dependable Gray. Scotty had actually worked with Gray when he was twenty and Gray must have been in grade school, maybe fourteen years old. They both liked this farmer with his big roadside barn and golden field and Gray and Scotty worked for the man from time to time, and sometimes together. They really pitched in when the farmer was tapping his maple trees and hanging buckets and gathering sap with his tractor and Gray and Scotty rode along on the trail. It was early March and the roads were mud and ice and budding Spring slop. One of the best times of the year. Scotty had an affection for Gray, even now as an older man. At least in Scotty's mind, the two men had a sort of kinetic connection to the old ways of Vermont's past. They'd done worked in it together. Curiously they hadn't laid eyes on one another, living four miles apart, for probably forty years when Gray showed up with that bum shoulder and a helper and repaired that faulty check valve in the well. Now air spasms were back and Scotty gave him a call.

Scotty and Susanna want to forget about a plumbing team they tried just before Gray returned — who, by the way, only works on cold water —when they had a few simple hot water odds and ends to smooth over. They tried this plumbing team who charged way too much and always left the house feeling undone, not smart. Scotty said, let's not say anymore.

So Gray came to repair the unsmart dinky water filter the plumbing team put in and then slowly but surely sunk into the foibles and trials of where was this air spasm coming from? Long story short it stretched over sixty days. Middle of winter. Back and forth between the well and the cellar plumbing fixtures, both ends of this plumbing unit put in almost forty years ago when Scotty hand dug the trench for a ten foot waterline from the water well to the house. Simple as pie. Except Scotty over the years laid up a thirty foot stone terrace with stone all pulled out of the river smack up against all the back of the farmhouse. It was a monumental hand digging job and Scotty had a local farmer truck in gravel to fill up the stone footing and then he topped it all off with the best flat rock he could locate in his river excursions looking for rock. Hauled it home in an old VW which worked like a stone boat on wheels, except it was Scotty and Susanna's only car! After the stone terrace was built, unexpectedly, a baby was born, what happiness! and both Scotty and Susanna didn't trust all this stone with a tipsy toddler and what accident might occur for the child, so Scotty built a two room addition over the terrace, which worked as an ideal foundation for the building that would eventually hold two libraries. It also buried most of their waterline, which often worried Scotty.

Now both sides of the plumbing network (well and house) have been looked after, refurbished, tended to for years on end, and no one except Scotty is giving any thought of that ten foot, underground waterline. Not even wise well-digger Gray. Supposedly. Scotty can't think for the life of him why Gray at the start of this sixty-day nightmare hasn't admitted to himself there is a plastic adapter down in the pitless adapter region of the well which often goes bad, before anything else, when dealing with a waterline. This plastic adapter is now nearly forty years old, which is old for anything made of plastic and five feet down in the grumpy ground. It could go bad. This will be the cause of all the air in the plumbing, even some dirt leeching in, and this will be missed for weeks and weeks. Sixty days of pretty good pranking, Scotty will say, and even now down-to-earth Susanna is convinced, "Something's up." They can't believe the once plumbing savior Gray could be part of any of this. . .


. . .until a few days after Scotty finally convinces Gray to bring in a backhoe, at the worst time of year, February and four feet of snow at the back door where the well casing is, and the small Kubota rolls up, with an excellent operator at the controls to get the snow shooed out of the way and quickly he is down into frost and soon soft wet earth shows itself and finally to the waterline. Two hours worth of pawing and digging and they all watch the water pressure from the split waterline adapter blow mud spray ten feet out of the ditch and up onto a snow bank. The pipe gets repaired, ground buried and smoothed over by the claw tips of the bucket and snow is brought back to look tidy and Scotty helps the operator move all his tools back to the truck. When Gray leaves a few hours before the job is done, he blurts out something to Scotty about: was Scotty going to sue another plumber; and did Scotty know the first bill for the job was past due? Nonsensical stuff, since Scotty never sued anyone in his life and didn't much care for lawyers anyway, and whatever "bill" was fictitious in Gray's mind since the job was now sixty days long and still not completed. Scotty smiled at Gray and said he would look into things, still wanting to enjoy the fact a moment ago they may have found the leak and the cause and solution to this air spasm nightmare in the house. For some reason it didn't seem to bother Gray too much there was air in this house. 'Shit happens' seems to be the intravenous solution that runs through all well-diggers' veins. 

Over the next four days Scotty and Susanna wait to see if the bad air will return with its normal rhythmic pattern. They talk amongst themselves in a wonder think-tank of how none of these sixty days has made any sense. They've even spent some thousands of dollars to have Gray go ahead and replace the pump, its motor, all the well casing pipeline and electric wiring, and in the house a larger water pressure tank is brought in much taller and fancier and some feet of cold water pipes are torn out and 3/4 inch pipe set in to replace the 1/2 pipe that has by then been gerrymanned over time by other plumber persuasions. It's a modest factor of materials and work and it still takes time and Scotty and Susanna are happy it's being done. As the new-plumber never wanted to go back to the well and find his busted check valve and the cause of the air spasms in the house, Gray doesn't want to get down into the ground, which will prove to take a mere two hours, as opposed to suffering sixty days, and find this busted plastic waterline. Call it what you will — poor diagnosis, stubborn pride, or more pranks.

Five days after the job and it looks good the house is finally back in order with its plumbing, Scotty and Susanna call up Gray to come down for a visit so they can talk about the billing and this finished job. The two of them are still reeling — not because of any spasms, plumbing, or even the cost of the carnival ride — by the fact these things are now happening in their small town. A town they always loved for its woodland location and small favors and hardworking souls. It sounds corny because it isn't corny, not when you live in it.


Gray can act like a bear of a man. Scotty knows there is a sweetness in the guy, and care; he's a father with three daughters and he likes to make them breakfast. He misses them all when they're away from home. He hedges into the kitchen and then stands stunned in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room and finally Scotty coaxes Gray to have a seat on one of the couches. He evidently wants to be there as much as he wants to be on his death bed. He's slow to relax if he even relaxes at all, though he does remove his camouflage hunter's cap at some point as the three try to make sense of the plumbing work over the last two months. More is revealed at what has been lost to the old town ways and trust than any agreement on over-charges and mistakes on diagnosis.

At one point, discussing the changes in their old town to what has become less practical and “new”, Gray offers to Scotty, "Our old town is all gone, it's now all new." Scotty squinted at Gray and said without losing a beat, "Not between you and me."


Gray even cuts Scotty off when Scotty starts up with a background story about the house plumbing history, decades working with Danny, trials and tribulations with others. Scotty's just trying to show portions of the house history to get to the present day problems. Show some perspective. Gray is interested in none of this. He even goes so far to admit that the plumbing problem in the house isn't his problem. He was hired, though if he doesn't find the problem or fix it, that's the way the cookie crumbles. "I'm not God", he snottily reminded Susanna. Scotty and Susanna have invited the man into their home and they also mean not that much to Gray. Right now they're just money. They owe Gray money. The house could fall apart tomorrow, float away, or blow away for what regard Gray is showing the couple. Scotty and Susanna without looking at one another can feel this from the man. It runs under the old rug his feet are planted on and down to the narrow width maple floor boards and up into the couple's blood. It's creepy and it's real. Gray one second looks like he could eat his hat, the next second he looks like he could storm away, the next second he does admit he is wiped out, tired, he's been working fourteen hour days back-to-back and hasn't slept. He feels pissed upon and dis-respected, used and misunderstood. Here's one more couple not wanting to pay their fair share; and here's one more couple seeing a worker pad his bill to make up for not charging his travel time because he says he's a nice guy. Yet he padded his bill.

And at the start of the visit, when Gray is just settling almost into the couch, up comes Danny in the conversation. Old and sick and recently passed away Danny. Scotty wanted to share with Gray just how good things once worked here with Danny, never mind how they once worked well with Gray. Gray just might be unhappy he couldn't please Scotty and Susanna — one can never tell. It was unavoidable that Scotty would have to share with Gray a bit of the poor workmanship from Danny on that last job and what set forth this warped and abstract odyssey of mainly dutiful workers gone loco and cranky with their pranks. Sure enough, at the first mention of Danny's slipping up on the job, and with no patience to allow Scotty to complete his story and affection for Danny, Gray was talking back against Scotty like he had a bear trap for a voice. It put a chill down Susanna's spine.

Bob Arnold