Thank you for joining me for the summer redux series. I will be re-posting stories you may not have read, in the fashion of a summer re-run. We’ll get back to our regular posting schedule in a few weeks. The original “The Septic Tank” story posted back in May 2011. It’s been embellished a little since then.
* * *
“Fannie, Richard, now that you are the guardians of the Benson family home, there are a few things you need to know,” Uncle Carl said. Shoving hands in his pockets searching for his keys, his arms accenting a small pot belly. Handing me the house keys, he said, “Since this house was built, tradition dictates cleaning the septic tank every four years.” Waiving his index finger for emphasis. “Never vary from that schedule or you’ll regret it. You’ve got two years. The Bubblator will sing you to sleep every night and warn you if anything’s amiss.” Winking, he said, “And Chip really does exist. Don’t forget to feed him.”
Aunt Verla punched him in the arm. And not that gentle, just kidding, playful sort of punch. Her Suzanne Pleshette wig going askew. Uncle Carl grinned as he rubbed his arm. She scolded him all the way back to their car. His eyes twinkled.
* * *
Tiny snow flakes drifted through the dark January sky over Gig Harbor, Washington, leaving a delicate lace cover on the ground. The peaks of the Cascade mountains forming in the distance as the sun rose like my zombie avatar.
At nine o’clock Cascade Sanitation arrived to clean our septic tank for the first time since we moved in.
The gentleman who pumped it, said, “You don’t need to empty this tank that often because the tank is only half full and it’s a waste of your money.” Scratching his chin where wisps of long, brown hair pretended to be a beard, he said, “Based on your usage you should only pump every eight years or so.”
We added one year to the schedule, better safe than sorry. Besides, we didn’t want to face the wrath of the family.
He installed risers over both access points to the tank. “Let’s face it, who wants to dig holes when they’re eighty?”
* * *
The top of the majestic maple on the corner of George and Bunny Gutierrez’s property turned yellow tinged with red.
I stood on the roof surveying the blanket of green moss. Possessed by the spirit of a gun maul, I grasped the spray gun and let water fly. Giant chunks of moss flew through the air and bounced down the driveway.
Richard, still holding the ladder, shook his head.
Pausing for a moment, wearing the biggest grin of my life, I said, “I may never come down.”
“Yes, you will, you’ll have to pee eventually,” Richard said, laughing.
“Kill joy,” I said, grinning. “Hey, while you’re down there, I noticed the bathroom sink is sluggish again. Do you mind fixing it?”
“No problem,” he said, “I’ll only be gone a couple of minutes. Just don’t fall off the roof while I’m gone.”
I have no talent for billiards or geometry thus when I reached the roof hip, I found myself covered in wet moss and grime. Raw experimentation stopped the spa treatment. Water and mud dripped from my hair, face and clothing back onto the roof via my sloshing shoes.
Richard walked into the front yard to check on me. Laughing, he said, “Wow, Miss Spunky, I can’t leave you alone for ten minutes before you go all commando on me. Great disguise by the way.”
Turning sideways, I asked, “Can you see me now?”
“Well, how about we call it a night before you scare the neighbors?” Richard asked, shaking his head.
As we walked through the garage back into the house the Bubblator, our gas powered hot water heater, issued a shocked burble, “Glub, glub, glub.” His voice carried to every corner of the house.
Fifteen minutes later, I discovered the bathroom sink worked great, but my comb bought a one way ticket to the trash can.
* * *
Over the course of the seasons, the Bubblator’s tune changed with the speed of an archeological expedition. I never noticed.
The dishwasher overflowed through the garbage disposal into the kitchen sink. The drain in the shower grew sluggish. The toilets burped randomly a few moments after flushing.
“Okay, Miss Spunky, the bathroom is yours whenever your zombie gets enough steam going,” Richard said. He turned off the bathroom light behind him.
The magic blankets held the bed’s heat. My zombie avatar lay in suspended animation next to two balls of orange fur that would later morph into cats. Richard exited the bedroom.
Laughing, I sat upright in the bed. “Very funny, Richard,” I said. The Bubblator burbled away in the garage. Running my fingers through my short brown hair, I asked, “Richard?”
The sound came from the bathroom. Two orange heads popped out from under the covers.
Wonder propelled me into the bathroom, my zombie avatar aided by a wooden floor and wool socks. Two cats jumped from the bed. They trotted in line behind me, a safe distance from my morning feet.
I walked into the bathroom in time to witness a final bubble burst from the toilet bowl.
Wicket and Sadie eyed the toilet. They sniffed the basin. Wicket stood on his hind legs and peered into the basin of the bowl. He hopped onto the toilet seat. He leaned into the bowl. He sniffed the water. Satisfied, he jumped onto the bathroom counter and batted the dental floss onto the floor. Sadie pounced on it. I grabbed her with one hand and the dental floss with the other.
Richard walked back into the bathroom. His eyes widened. “You’re up?”
“Yeah, you may want to re-think your high fiber diet,” I said, laughing, “the toilet had indigestion this morning.”
“Very funny,” he said, shaking his head.
Two weeks later, at an unmentionable hour of the morning, I flushed the toilet in the guest bathroom when it performed the exact opposite of a flush.
Adrenaline pumped through my veins like a trip through Space Mountain. I ripped the lid off the tank. I shoved the flapper closed. The brackish water tensed at the lip of the toilet bowl. It wiggled like a Jell-O Jiggler. With the speed of a banana slug heading for a beer bath, the water drained from the bowl.
“Richard, help,” I said. My voice ending in a squeak.
Richard popped his head into the bathroom. Laughing, he said, “Fannie pour boiling hot water into the toilet that should take care of the issue.”
After the hot water tonic, the toilet burped and returned to the normal flow of things. The Bubblator glugged a few times.
Meanwhile in the master bathroom, which is closer to the septic tank, Richard finished his morning constitutional.
I joined him in the bathroom. “You were right, the hot water did the trick.”
He flushed the toilet.
The seal blew out from the base of the toilet. Water erupted from the bowl. It streamed in all directions followed by a fountain of unmentionables.
Richard said, “Fannie, I need the largest towels you can find and make it quick.”
We stopped the water. I called Cascade Sanitation.
The woman, who answered the phone, said, “Check the level of your septic tank and make certain your baffle isn’t clogged or covered by a full tank.”
It turns out a clogged baffle forces sewage back up into your residence in just such a spectacular manner.
I asked, “What’s a baffle? And where do I look for it?”
She said, “Open the lid to your tank and check the level of effluent. If you can see a pipe coming into it, you’re okay. Otherwise call me back.”
Four years elapsed since the last tank cleaning.
Richard opened the cover to the tank. Steam rose, commingling with the January fog. I looked into the bowels of the beast. Waving my hands in front of my face, tears ran from my eyes like stampeding elephants. Effluent filled the tank to the brim. Coughing, Richard covered the tank. I called Cascade Sanitation.
The woman who answered the phone said, “We can be there sometime between 1 and 5 p.m. this afternoon. Whatever you do, do not to use your facilities prior to our arrival based on the information you just gave us.”
During our wait, the call of nature required the delicate use of the great outdoors in freezing winter temperatures. With no fencing and a slender greenbelt devoid of leaves surrounding our property, they instructed us to flash a mid-day moon to all our neighbors.
We soon tired of dancing because we consumed too much of our favorite morning beverages before we found out we lost our privileges. Let’s just say we crossed more than our fingers.
I called Bunny.
“We have an emergency, can we use your bathroom?”
“Fannie, honey, mi casa es su casa,” Bunny said, with her refined Texas accent. I could hear George laughing in the background. Visions of Bunny’s blond pony tail dancing flashed on the big screen of my mind.
We got the call around 11 a.m., Cascade Sanitation would arrive within the hour.
An enormous tanker truck backed into our driveway. The Sanitation Man hauled 100 feet of mucky, blue-ribbed hose and forced it into the tank. It took one hour to drain all 1,125.6 gallons.
Now for the big test, flushing a toilet.
I flushed the guest bathroom toilet. It worked. The Bubblator burbled.
I ran outside to see if they witnessed the results on their end. Nothing happened. Puzzled, I ventured into the master bath and repeated the procedure. Again the toilet worked. I opened the window.
“Do you see anything?”
“Nothing arrived in the tank,” Richard said, shaking his head.
“Folks, I think you’re baffle is clogged,” the Sanitation Man said. “We need to find the baffle.”
We grabbed a couple of shovels. Richard and I dug while the Sanitation Man policed his work area.
After 15 minutes of random digging, brown water welled up from the ground like Texas Tea in the opening sequence of the Beverly Hillbillies. We dug 22 inches down before Richard’s shovel hit something solid.
Dark brown water filled the hole. The Sanitation Man dropped his hose and suction off the water. A cement cap with brown re-bar handle peered back at us. He used a crow bar to catch the handle. He grunted. The cap sprung free followed by our own very special artesian well.
The Sanitation Man pumped rushing water out of the hole. When the flow subsided we found the baffle clogged with lard.
The Sanitation Man grabbed a golf club from his truck.
Grinning like the Hannibal Lector before a meal, he said, “This is the best part of the job.”
With the aid of a three-iron, he beat the living daylights out of the clog.
After about two minutes the clog cleared and mucky water flowed into the tank. It drained within five minutes.
The Sanitation Man said, “You need to build your own riser for the baffle to prevent this from happening again. Clean it every two years using a pressure washer just to be on the safe side.” Raising his three-iron, he added, “Stop by Goodwill and get your own specialized clog-busting tool. The three-iron is my personal favorite, but any of the irons or even a putter will work and they’re cheap”.
We placed a tarp over the hole.
The Bubblator returned to his cheerful “blub, blub, blub.”
The next morning Richard opened the door to the shower. The desiccated remains of the previous day lay out in full glory.
Clorox is our friend. We used a full gallon cleaning the affected areas. Not stopping there, Richard determined the shower should be clean enough for Inspector 12.
After a thorough chlorine wash and rinse, Richard sprinkled Tide with bleach over the stall floor and let it ruminate with the floor tiles.
After several hours in contemplation, the tiles, not Richard, he rinsed the floor and scrubbed it again followed by a dose of CLR, more scrubbing and a final rinse. When finished, not even the mold had a lifeline.
Richard spent Sunday trying to find the supplies to build the perfect riser. A 12-inch round pipe with a cap. To complete the ensemble, dry cement poured around the outside of the new riser.
In the words of the Sanitation Man, “The cement will wick the rest of the moisture from the ground removing the drainage from your impromptu artesian well all while hardening in place.”
None of the local hardware stores carried our size piping. The largest they could offer, nine inches. We needed to create our own.
George and Bunny dropped by.
“Nobody carries the size pipe we need,” I said, over my cup of coffee.
“Where did you buy the risers for your tank?” George asked, with his soft spoken Texas accent, a contrast to the bass voice emanating from his lineman’s frame. A pencil thin black mustache and goatee framing his mouth.
I smacked the palm of my hand to my head. “What were we thinking?”
We purchase a riser from Cascade Sanitation.
Our combined work schedules delayed the installation of the riser until Valentine’s Day weekend. What could be more romantic than installing a riser for the septic system with the one you love?
Once we finished, Richard surprised me with roses and High Tea at the Hawthorn Tea Room. A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet. I suspect not. But the scones were delicious.