Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Le Déluge, Après Moi

The first time I said to myself that I would probably never read Tess of the d'Urbervilles again was likely back in my thirties when I was packing up my books to move out of the house that I'd shared with my now-ex-wife. On one level, it was a simple acknowledgment that I probably could have let that book go, even though I knew I would choose not to. But the statement came to mean something more to me: every time I thought about the intersection of age, my uneasy role as a collaborator to capitalism, and the slow demise of my intellectual life, I'd put it in similar terms: "There comes a time in his life when a man realizes that he'll probably never read Tess of the d'Urbervilles again." Pretentious, yes, but at least I only ever said it to myself.

It didn't have to be Tess, of course, but she/it was a particularly good candidate: as a youth, with certain exceptions (mostly 20th century southern writers, especially Faulkner) all of my favorite novelists had been 19th Century English writers. And I'd liked Tess very much, but not so much that I'd probably ever feel a desire for it strong enough to overcome the charms of either a novel I hadn't yet read or a novel I liked better. Put another way, Hardy occupied a middle tier between authors I'd keep and re-read (Austen, Dickens) and those I'd eventually donate to the church bazaar (Thackeray, Trollope). I'm not sure exactly who else is in the middle tier, but it likely includes all of George Eliot except Middlemarch. It's important to me to believe that there will come a time when I have sufficient fortitude and leisure to read Middlemarch again. That's a lot of leisure. And fortitude.

Please join me now in a moment of silence for the transition that died but that would otherwise have been here. Thank you.

And now the scene changes to my office. The day is yesterday, the time is five o'clock. Pm. (Actually, it turns out that there really isn't another one.) I'm reviewing a tax return and planning to stay until 8 or so. But then, the cell phone rings. It's b&c's ring.

TED: Hi.
B&c: Hello there.
TED: Yeah?
B&c: Can you come home early today?
TED: Um...
B&c: The basement is flooded.
TED: Ugh.
B&c: I think it's either the pump on the air conditioner or it's the water heater. Your boxes are too heavy for me to move.
TED: Fine.
B&c: Are you coming home on 355 or Connecticut Ave.
TED: Why?
B&c: I wanted to see whether I could get a non-monosyllabic response out of you.

So I spend the next forty-five minutes (the traffic getting out of Bethesda at 5 o'clock is a rare treat) driving home, where I hear b&c in the basement, mopping and cursing, and I go downstairs, and there's water covering the 15% of the basement where most of my boxes are stored, and a lot of the boxes are on top of other boxes, so they just get moved; or they contain non-porous cooking equipment, which just needs to be dried off; or clothes, which I haul upstairs to launder; but then I see a photocopy paper box with "BOOKS" written on it in permanent marker.

I passed on to the box, and stooped down. I lifted the heavy cardboard, put the other dank pages aside, and turned the cover. And it was Tess, cold and dead.

I was not happy. Ordinarily, at such a time, I would take some consolation in philosophy, but the flood got that, too:

[By the way, you know that commercial where the two guys stuff an entire busted grand piano into a garbage bag? Load of hooey. I got the same kind of bag, and it couldn't even handle a small box of damp paperbacks. On the plus side, I did finally locate the power chord to my electronic keyboard.]

By the time I'd moved what I could and bagged up what I had to throw away, b&c was nearing the end of his rope. He'd been mopping for hours but the water kept coming. I tried to suggest, gently, that a leaking water heater qualified as a plumbing emergency, so he could try the after-hours number for his plumber. His response was to say that he needed to go make dinner. And then I asked him whether he'd turned off the water flowing into the water heater, in the hopes that doing so would stop water coming out of the water heater, but he hadn't realized that the blue valve on the pipe leading into the water heater had a purpose. I turned it off and mopped some more and then we had dinner. Then I heard him moaning from downstairs that there was more water. I suggested that since turning off the intake valve hadn't been enough, perhaps it would be a good idea for me to drain the water heater, and his response was to go out and buy a wet vac. Far be it from me to deny any man the pleasure of buying a new piece of equipment, but this is the same guy who could not hammer tacks into fence posts but still insisted that my buying a staple gun was the height of extravagance.

Not that I was angry or anything.

Anyway, draining a forty gallon hot water heater turns out to be a tedious task. If the situation ever arises, make it easier on yourself by hooking one end of a hose to the drain valve, putting the other end of the hose down in a drain somewhere, and opening the hot water taps in the rest of the house, to relieve the vacuum and empty the tank more quickly. Or you can just haul bucket after bucket after bucket of hot water up the stairs and pour it down the toilet: you'll feel more virtuous that way.

I was up until after midnight draining and mopping and listening to b&c swear about how the wet vac was a waste of money, especially when it overloaded the circuit and he had to find his way through a dark basement to the circuit breaker panel. Twice. I suggested that maybe it would be a good idea to turn off the dehumidifier while he was running the wet vac, but he's a Catholic, so I reckon that bumping into things in a dark wet basement is his version of penance. I had always thought that a "Hail, Mary" began with "Hail, Mary," but it appears that "Jesus Christ!" and "Fuck!" are also acceptable beginnings. Live and learn.

One of the other things I learned last night is that while the leak may have happened yesterday, there had been other episodes of water in the basement. In going through some of my boxes, I happened across significant amounts of mold. My eyes began to water and my skin to itch, but fortunately it was only about six more hours after that before I could take a shower. Unfortunately, there was no hot water, so it was a cold shower, but b&c was paranoid about my running the water, so it was only a brief cold shower.

And today my eyes feel like they might swell shut, and I'd take a Benadryl, but then I'd pass out in my office because I'm only just barely staying awake as it is, and that is the sort of day I'm having, and the worst part of it all is that I'll almost certainly never read Tess of the d'Urbervilles again.


  1. I just had to stop by to tell you that your comment on Dooce's post re the naked pictures was priceless. Made me laugh harder than anything in the e-mail in question. :)

  2. Ohmygawd! Thats awful. Hope you have recovered. Sad that the books cannot.