Thank you for joining me for the summer redux series. I have been re-posting stories you may not have read, in the fashion of a summer re-run.
The original “Farewell to the Bubblator” posted back in September 2011. It’s been embellished a little since then. The story was re-posted last summer, and here it is again like my favorite re-run of Gilligan’s Island . . . thanks Little Buddy. 🙂
* * *
The summer’s heat faded from the shores of Gig Harbor, Washington. The air crisp and yellowing leaves meant one thing, time to fire-up ol’ Betsy.
Her pilot light disappeared after several months of slumber.
“Richard, do you know how this thing works?” I asked, staring at the furnace, running my fingers through my short brown hair.
“Haven’t the foggiest,” he said, clearing cob webs from the outside of the pilot light housing. He wiped his hand on his faded blue jeans. It left a trail of dust and rolled cobweb on his right leg.
“Can you see instructions anywhere?” I asked, tugging up the sleeves on my favorite, faded forest green sweatshirt.
“Hand me that flash light,” he said. He pointed the beam inside the housing. A spider commune and remnants of past feasts clung to the walls. “Nope, no instructions. Do you want to wing it?” he asked, winking. His devilish grin commandeering his face. His blue eyes twinkling.
“Yeah right. I’ll start calling contractors and see if anyone is available to help us,” I said, shooting him look number 10 from my mother’s arsenal—redirecting jokester husbands with a glance.
The Bubblator, located next to ol’ Betsy, burbled his agreement with a hardy, “blub, blub, blub.”
Fifteen phone calls later, my left ear resembled a cauliflower. “Richard, I found someone who can be here tomorrow morning.”
* * *
Erick, the contractor, in his well-worn, blue service coveralls, stretched a little too tight around his middle, stood in front of our vintage furnace—his eyes wide. He blinked in rapid succession. He shook his head. His fingers traced the name plate.
“I’ve been working in this field for over 30 years now and I thought all these had been replaced years ago. Look at this date stamp. It was manufactured in 1977,” he said, rubbing his chin.
The Bubblator gurgled his agreement.
Erick jumped backwards. The wall stopped him.
“What the . . . ,” he said. His chest pumped up and down. His breath in short spurts. He pushed his wire rimmed glasses back up his nose.
“That’s our hot water heater. He talks,” I said, smiling. “Bubblator meet Erick. Erick this is the Bubblator.”
“You have got to be kidding me,” Erick said, rubbing his right elbow. “Hot water heaters are only designed for 10-years of life. This thing has got to be over 30-years-old. And it shouldn’t talk.”
Two loud glubs exploded within the Bubblator, followed by a series of small bubbles bursting, reminiscent of someone blowing a raspberry.
“See, what did I tell you,” I said, my hands on my hips.
Erick eyed the Bubblator. “That thing’s a hazard and should be replaced,” he said, the tone of his voice like a scolding great aunt.
From any room in our house the sounds of the Bubblator and ol’ Betsy—working away in cheerful mechanical harmony, bubble, bubble, chug, chug, whir with an occasional rattle thrown in for good measure—kept us company.
My Aunt Verla and Uncle Carl installed them both when my grandmother left them the house in her will. The Bubblator never leaked in his three-times normal life.
Very impressed with the craftsmanship and unintentional life span, I said, “Bubblator, you rock.”
Blub, blub, blub.
Erick took a step back.
“Come on,” I said, the tone of my voice filled with exasperation, “according to my Uncle Carl that’s what he’s supposed to do. It’s our first gas powered hot water heater, I assumed he made those noises because of the higher water temperatures.”
Richard—expressing his doubts for a couple of years now—said, “You can lead a horse to water.”
Erick tore Ol’ Betsy apart. He cleaned her and re-lit the pilot light. The house exhaled as it came up to temperature.
“I’ll be surprised if this furnace survives the winter,” he said, wiping his hands clean on a faded red shop towel.
My stomach dropped into my knees.
Not ready to fork out that kind of cash, we decided to wait.
Three days later, the pilot light disappeared in the manner of D.B. Cooper. We still didn’t know how to relight her.
* * *
“Richard, have you seen the cats?” I asked, walking into the living room. My breath creating cartoon speech balloons. “I can’t find them.”
“Check the bedroom,” he said, his tall lean frame wrapped in his grandmother’s patchwork quilt. He sipped his coffee while tendrils of steam caressed his face. “I turned on the electric blanket for them.”
I called Erick’s office. “Could you give us a quote on a replacement furnace, hot water heater and a heat pump?” I asked, wearing the matching forest green wool hat, scarf, and gloves my mother knitted for me last Christmas.
Erick said, “I can come by in three days.”
I neglected to mention the pilot light issue. What’s heat when you have two orange cats coiled in your lap? What’s heat to native Pacific North Westerners? What’s heat to descendants of pioneering stock?
What’s three-days without heat?
Clank, whir. Burble, burble, burble.
* * *
Aunt Verla and Uncle Carl stopped by to pay their final respects.
“Fannie,” Aunt Verla said, in her clipped tones. She wore a floor length, dark-brown, goose-down coat, which on a taller woman would have ended at her shins. Her black boots lined with turtle fur. And an imitation brown fur hat—in homage of Zsa Zsa Gabor—in place of her favorite Betty White Wig, “they just don’t make them like that any more.” Running her gloved hand over the Bubblator. Glub, glub. “I tried to talk Butch and Bud into coming over so we could get a family photo, but they both have to work. Would you take our picture? I know you won’t mind. I brought over pictures of the boys so they won’t feel left out.” She drew a breath.
Uncle Carl wore a brown squall jacket and a fisherman’s hat. His smile plastered in an indulgence which did not match the smirk in his eyes.
Aunt Verla handed him the eight by ten head shot of Bud with Uncle Carl’s square head. Bud’s hair a wavy, slicked-back, dark-brown. The neck of a weight lifter, Uncle Carl’s smile and my aunt’s eyes. She held Butch’s photo, lean jawed, narrow nose, and thick, curly brown hair. The male version of my aunt.
The photo shoot took an hour. Ol’ Betsy and the Bubblator provided the musical entertainment.
Blub, Blub, Blub. Clank.
* * *
When Erick arrived, he asked, “Fannie, why are you wearing a coat indoors? Did the pilot light go out again?”
Shivering, I said, “I need a lesson in pilot lighting.”
Ol’ Betsy knew something was going on, because her motor would not turn off when we tried to relight her. Erick tore her apart again.
Two days later Erick faxed us the quote. And the grand total made a boing sound. Five minutes later he faxed over the rebate and tax credit information raising the quote to the much more comfortable ouch level.
Sticker shock is a terrible thing.
Armed with a butane camping lighter, I practiced my pilot lighting skills every other day.
We asked two other contractors for quotes. The boing sound we heard from Erick’s quote turned into the ping of a pin drop.
We hired Erick.
* * *
The alarm clocked sounded off at 6:30 a.m., followed by the Bubblator’s morning off-gasses and Ol’ Betsy clanking a pan.
“Richard, I think they know something’s up,” I said, pulling the cover over my head.
“Fannie, they aren’t alive, they don’t know anything,” Richard said, putting his left arm around me.
GLUB, GURGLE, GLUB.
“But I could be wrong,” he said, laughing.
The fog lifted. Wisps still clung in the space between the giant red cedars highlighted by the early morning sun. The temperature dropped five degrees by the time Erick’s installers arrived with our much-anticipated equipment.
Richard put his arm around my shoulder when I photographed the Bubblator and ol’ Betsy, basked in sunlight. He handed me his handkerchief.
Burble. Burble. Purr.
They disconnected the Bubblator first. Water poured down the driveway in steaming rivulets. The house fell silent. Its voice lost.
Four hours later, volcanic-steam-vent-temperature water ran from the taps.
Ol’ Betsy emitted her last rattle, clank, and whir. A final farewell before the younger model replaced her—the second wife.
By the end of the first day, the house felt cozy like an Irish hand-knit sweater.
* * *
Day two: Heat pump installation. A two-stage heat pump, this bad boy dwarfed me. Richard, a foot and a half taller than me, took a picture with me posing in the manner of Vanna White.
The job supervisor kept wringing his hands and repeating, “I’m so sorry it’ll be so noisy.”
He spent little time in the company of the Bubblator.
A technician charged the heat pump with refrigerant. He walked over to the circuit breaker panel. With his pointing finger, he energized it.
The compressor roared to life with the ferocity of a sleeping field mouse.
We waited for the tell-tale sounds. Something to lessen the void. It hummed along in near silence.
After a few hours, the smell of recycled dust disappeared, along with the parched hints of Death Valley in winter. The living room invited warmth, no longer ice cold as though inhabited by the spirits of my dead relatives.
Two orange cats planted themselves on top of the sofa in the living room. They stared out the window they way first timers look at Crater Lake.
* * *
The sinus headaches stayed for two days as we acclimatized. After that we didn’t even wake up in the middle of the night to pee.
Yet the silence felt strange with no Bubblator to keep us company.
Farewell Bubblator, we miss you.