by Christie Robb
It’s entirely possible that I should not be allowed to own a home.
Perhaps my husband and I should have purchased a relatively easy starter home in the suburbs—something built this century. Instead, we bought a house that is nearly 100 years old with all the associated wear and tear that comes with age, and with a few bonus quirks courtesy of previous owners that were into DIY projects.
One of these quirks is the bathroom floor. For some reason, it sits nearly two inches higher than every other floor on that story. The bathroom is located on the second floor, directly across from the stairs, making for the occasional moment of terror when you get up to pee in the middle of the night and exit the bathroom forgetting about the extra two inches, stumble, and nearly pitch yourself down the stairs.
The house is also located in an older neighborhood, which is great in terms of walking destinations: coffee shop, taco place, single-screen movie theatre/bar. But the neighborhood also experiences a little bit of petty crime.
My husband’s car, for example, has been broken into several times, despite the booty being limited to (at best) a window scraper and (at worst) his used, sweaty gym clothes. The least lucrative theft was our City of Columbus-provided trashcan. It was exactly the same as every other un-stolen trashcan on our block, except for the gaping hole in the lid.
Which made it the worst trashcan on the block.
I guess there is no accounting for the thought process of petty thieves.
Recently my mother noticed that the toilet in our one and only bathroom was a bit wobblier than normal. She began a campaign of nagging me to call a plumber lest the wax ring seal around the base degrade and a whole mess of sewage infiltrate the floor of the bathroom and become a shit fountain into the kitchen sink directly below.
She had a point.
I called Bob the plumber and asked if he could check out the wobbly toilet and also deal with a slow drain in the kitchen sink that had stopped responding to my liberal application of liquid drain un-clogger.
Bob agreed and provided a window of time during which he’d come over. Anytime from noon until five PM.
Sigh. Even the cable guy thought this was poor scheduling.
That day it was bitter cold and had started to snow in the early afternoon. As I was home waiting, I felt compelled to shovel the walkway. But I convinced myself that as soon as I started to do so, the plumber would call to give me the half-hour heads up that he was coming and in my bundled up state I’d miss the call.
I failed to shovel the snow. Instead, I puttered around cleaning up the house, figuring that if I seemed to respect and care for my home, the plumber invited into it would respect it as well.
Bob pursed his lips at the sight of the two-inch elevation of the bathroom floor.
“How long have you owned this house?” he asked.
I reassured him that, although I have had the house for eight years, most of its quirks were due to the previous owner. I just haven’t bothered to fix them.
He plunked some dye into the toilet tank and suggested we check out the kitchen sink to give the dye a chance to potentially bleed out all over the floor and alert us to a leaking sewage issue.
I uttered a brief internal prayer and led Bob downstairs.
Standing over the kitchen sink, Bob used his cell phone as a flashlight and looked down the drain. He asked me how I used the garbage disposal.
It’s a garbage disposal. I reassured him that I used it for the usual disposal of the stray kitchen scraps that aren’t easily scraped off a plate.
It’s not like I used it to get rid of the bodies or anything.
He looked at me with suspicion and launched into a lecture about how you should really never use your garbage disposal for anything and if you do to make sure you run hot water through it for like solid ten minutes after. Then he opened the cabinet door under the sink and showed me a rusty connection where the garbage disposal motor meets the drain pipe.
“Yeah, this is about to become shrapnel,” he said, poking at the rust. “One day you are going to turn this baby on and the coupling will break and fly out into the kitchen.”
“Oh good,” I mumbled, imagining rusted metal shearing into my toddler’s face. She’s basically the perfect height.
I directed the plumber to the other side of the sink. The one with the problem.
He turned on the water and waited for it to slowly drain, then peered at it with his flashlight to reveal some brownish sludge. Bob told me I could have just dealt with it myself with a five-dollar plastic thing they have at the hardware store.
I could feel myself turning red. As he poked around in the drain with the five-dollar plastic thing that he had taken out of his pocket, I tried to explain that the slow drain wasn’t something I normally would call a plumber about, but that since he was already coming out and as I have a toddler and wasn’t planning a trip to the hardware store anytime soon…
Bob interrupted. “Did you know this basket strainer isn’t right?”
I attempted to assess how important it was for me to know what a “basket strainer” is and what constitutes a correct one. I figured Bob was describing the plastic thing that sits in the drain on that side and attempts to prevent food from washing down the non-garbage disposal side of the sink.
“What, like the weave of the mesh is too large or something? The other day a chunk of potato fell down that side and I really don’t think that should have been able to—“
Bob interrupted and pointed at the strainer. “No. It’s for a completely different sink.”
I peered at it. Now that he mentioned it, the color of the sink and the color of the strainer didn’t exactly seem to match.
“Huh,” I muttered. “Previous owners, I guess.”
Bob launched into a series of stories about hapless homeowners of older houses. At first, this seemed designed to reassure me. Like, all older homes have their issues and it’s ok. Then Bob started telling me about a lady who never drained her water heater and ended up with it falling apart due to it being filled up with layers of sediment.
I, never having heard of draining one’s water heater, gulped. Bob read my face and said that after we were done with the toilet, he would check out my water heater. My heart rate accelerated as I pictured my basement. The place where we had shoved all the breakable lamps to baby proof the house and stashed all the furniture to make room for the baby accessories and dumped all the baby accessories to make room for the toddler kitchen sets and bookshelves.
Plus there’s all that cat shit on the floor.
We went upstairs to look at the toilet. Thankfully the floor wasn’t dyed blue, so it seemed the toilet hadn’t been leaking, at least not that badly. Bob leaned over the toilet, placed a hand on each side of the seat and jostled it back and forth.
“It shouldn’t move this much,” he said.
“Is this your master bathroom?” he asked.
I replied that it was the only bathroom. Bob looked at me. I think he was trying to mask his pity, but he wasn’t putting a lot of effort into it.
Bob told me that if he removed the toilet he might find something unpleasant, like rotten subflooring, that might require a lot of fixing. And he hit the tile with his foot, pointing out the series of cracks in it that have only gotten worse in the eight years since we’ve owned the house.
“And I don’t trust this floor.”
I reassured him that I didn’t either, that I had always wondered why it was two inches higher than all the other floor, but that I really wanted the toilet fixed to avoid a shit fountain.
“Try to fix the toilet,” I said. “We’ll deal with what we find.”
I began simultaneously brainstorming how to fashion a makeshift toilet out of an empty bucket of cat litter and furtively googling whether “draining the water heater” is actually a thing people do or something the plumber was trying to upsell me on.
I tried not to think about what would happen financially if my husband and I found out that we’d need to gut the bathroom immediately instead of in a few years when we’d saved up the money.
I’m too old and uncoordinated to earn extra money on the pole.
Bob removed the toilet. “Actually it’s not as bad as I thought,” Bob started.
Moving the toilet itself off to the side, he shined the cellphone flashlight into the hole over which the toilet once stood.
“Look at this,” he directed in a derisive tone.
I looked and narrowed my eyes in concern. I had no idea what I was looking at. I wished my husband was home. Not because he knows anything more about plumbing than I do, but just for moral support and an extra memory to recall what terms we need to google later.
I still don’t know what was actually wrong. Something about flanges, diameter of holes, plaster and screws that were supposed to secure things that ended up being purely decorative.
Bob tutted and suggested various creative solutions for dealing with whatever the problems were. For the next hour or so he walked back and forth to his van, getting parts, trying them out, failing, going to get a different part, repeat, leaving the front door open every time with just the screen door closed.
I’ve got the type of screen door that has a glass cover I can pull up over the screen in the winter. Except it’s a little bit broken and we can’t pull up the glass to cover the top two inches of screen. So every time Bob left, frigid air would blow into the house.
After about the seventh time he came in, Bob noticed and said, “Your screen door is broken.”
I bowed my head in shame.
“Oh, and I’ve nearly fallen down your front stairs every time I’ve gone out. You should probably shovel.”
Eventually, Bob decided that the best plan would be to replace the wax ring and glue the toilet directly to the floor. “This isn’t a permanent solution,” he hastened to inform.
Bob started work and I retreated to the living room to send out texts to all my home-owning friends and family to ask if they’d ever had their hot water heater drained and to google what a “flange” and a “gasket” were.
Hours pass. The husband and daughter come home. We have dinner. The plumber goes on a shopping trip to the hardware store.
I’ve not had a lot of water to drink, but I’m at the point where I’m starting to consider crafting the makeshift toilet out of the cat litter bucket.
It’s almost the daughter’s bedtime and there are still drilling sounds from the bathroom. We throw on another episode of Curious George. Plumber asks for some extra towels and a box fan.
I throw on another episode of Curious George, pray that my tired daughter doesn’t have a meltdown, and cross my legs.
Another episode past bedtime, Bob says he’s done. He lurches down the stairs carrying a large trash bag and sets it on the floor.
I whip out the checkbook I use once every two years and ask for the damage report.
Bob says that since it’s so late he’s going to charge me just for the toilet job and write out an estimate for the other stuff, which is great as I never agreed to actually pay him to fix the other stuff. He mumbles about a new basket strainer and coupling for the garbage disposal.
I mention the water heater.
Bob’s face lit up.
“I forgot about that! Let’s go look at that now.”
And he immediately turned toward the basement door.
I followed behind muttering excuses about how messy it is. My heart sank when I reached the bottom of the stairs to see that the cat had, once again, pooped all over the floor.
I pointed, defeated, to the water heater.
Bob gracefully stepped over the poop and inspected the tank. I peered at the basement as if looking at it for the first time.
Hoarders, I thought to myself.
Bob turned and asked where the main shutoff for the house is located. I looked around my basement at various knobs. I knew this. At one point.
I remembered attending our home inspection, and the inspector making a big deal out of the main shutoff. Maybe it’s this one knob, I thought, looking at a blue one. But then, in my peripheral vision, I noticed a red knob. I recalled the red knob having some sort of significance. Maybe I was wrong about the blue knob.
It was something that in normal circumstances I would have likely confirmed, either by asking my husband if he remembered, or by looking up my notes from the home inspection. But at this point I was tired, wanted Bob out of my house, was and doing a pee dance, so I pointed at the red knob.
I chose poorly.
Bob informed me that the red knob was actually the shutoff for the exterior water. He twisted the knob and lectured me about how it was freezing outside and I really should turn the exterior water line off.
I squirmed, shifting my weight to the left and right.
Bob asked me if I knew where my water meter was. Now, this I do actually know, but by this point, the inside of my head was filled with static and a high-pitched whine and I was minutes from wetting myself. I just said it was outside in an attempt to lure Bob out of the house so I could go pee in my newly glued-to-the-floor toilet.
Bob turned around and pointed to the clearly visible, somewhat enormous water meter. “This is your water meter,” he said.
I nodded and wished I had done more Kegels.
Kicking the cat shit out of my way, I led Bob back upstairs. I filled out the check while hopping casually.
Bob picked up his trash bag and asked where the outside trash was. He’d just throw the bag away on his way out.
“Actually,” I said, clearing my throat and summoning the shreds of my dignity, “I don’t have a trashcan.”
I pointed at the corner of the kitchen where I’d stored several stinky bags containing kitchen scraps and disposable training pants.
Bob lowered his contractor bag to the top of the pile, releasing the smell of rotten chicken parts, and fled toward the un-shoveled front steps.
He only slipped a little bit.