Devin Donovan, 12/7/2015
Current Occupation: Lecturer in Composition
Former Occupations: Plumber, Student, Corporate Communications Writer, Contractor's Apprentice, Ice Cream Scoop/Soda Jerk.
Contact Information: Devin Donovan lives in Charlottesville, VA where he works as a Lecturer in Composition at the University of Virginia. His work has recently been featured in Talking Writing and Black Heart Magazine. He keeps his hands in the trades as a part-time plumber doing small jobs for friends and family. He loves the smell of copper tubing dust ground into his skin. He loves to build sentences.
The Start of the River
Llewellyn Powell came out first thing in the morning to thaw the pipes in Albert Bagni’s basement. He brought his apprentice Jeremy with him. They came in through the bulkhead out of the cold, Jeremy carrying the portable propane heater and the canister of propane. Lew carried his droplight and a small bag of hand tools. He turned and shut the swing doors of the bulkhead after him. Jeremy got to work firing up the space heater.
The ticket said no water. “So what’s goin’ on?” Lew asked Albert. No water could mean anything. The office didn’t know.
“I heard water running in the middle of the night,” said Albert, competing with the noise of the propane heater, “so I came down and shut the main valve off.”
“And it’s off now?” Lew asked, “cuz I don’t see no water.” It was off now, Al explained, puzzled. Lew was buying time. Jeremy tinkered with the heater to look busy.
“Ok well I gotta see water to know where it’s coming from,” Lew said. Al cracked the valve and Lew grabbed it and torqued it open hard.
“I can hear it,” said Lew, “still can’t see it.” And then the water started pouring slowly out the entrance to the crawl space and running down the cinder block partition. Slow like gravity, not pressure.
Jeremy darted around looking for a bucket. Lew stood and watched. Al slouched his head away from the ceiling, suddenly feeling very large. “I’ll leave you to it,” said Al. “I’m upstairs if you need anything.” Lew nodded but kept his eyes on the crawl space.
When Al was gone Lew told Jeremy to “shut that off.” Jeremy turned the main valve to the right with a mix of relief and guilt. He was useful now. Crawlspace jobs can always use a runner. But runners don’t go in the hole.
Lew went up the bulkhead steps and the slats of wood creaked under the weight of his boots. He released the latch lock of the steel doors and pushed one open after another and they fell to rest on the hard snow with a soft crunch.
Lew returned from the van with his solder box. He twisted the lit end of his cigarette between his fingers and put what was left in his pocket. He told Jeremy to wait at the entrance to the crawlspace and to turn the valve on when he told him to. He unhooked his knife, his tape and his cell phone from his front pockets and placed them on the ledge of the cinder block wall. Unraveled the droplight cord that was wrapped around the bulb’s metal cage and plugged it into the closest outlet. Clicked on the light and placed it in the hole. Pushed his solder box in as far as it would go. Stepped up on a chair and squeezed himself into the hole headfirst.
The water had run down the fall line of the earth where the dirt came together like a funnel. He held his caged light like a torch, nudged his box forward, and inched along the water’s path like a worm.
Lew pushed his tools and dragged his belly until his droplight ran out of cord. Twenty-five feet in. He liked to keep track of the deep holes. Guys at the shop knew how to talk about holes. The pipes took a right turn. The river took a right turn. He hung the bulb’s cage by its hook and tried to face its light in the direction he would have to go. He left his solder box with the light and slithered halfway back down the funnel of earth to Jeremy.
“Turn it on!” he yelled.
“What?” Jeremy called from the mouth of the space.
“Turn the valve on!” he shouted. “Slow.”
Lew inched back to his solder box and the hanging light and heard the split pipe start to hiss somewhere off in the darkness. He watched the river start to run again.
He pushed his solder box ahead of him and then crawled after it. Push, crawl, push – until he was so far from the light that it started to fade. Another twenty-five feet, at least, he thought. The start of the river was still somewhere in the darkness. He pulled his miniature flashlight out of his back pocket. He flashed it at the river. He ran it along the pipes. Mostly he followed the sound.
He crawled until he reached a corner of the home’s foundation. There was some low light coming in from a hole in the siding dug by a skunk. He shone his light around until he saw a nest made of shredded fiberglass insulation. It was empty. He put his light away. He could see well enough by the light the skunk let in. Water was pouring slow and steady out of the back of a half inch copper elbow where it had frozen and split. It lay against the concrete foundation. The skunk or the rats had robbed its insulation. He had one elbow in the box. He could make it work if he unsweat the split elbow, but he needed the water off.
He looked back at the entrance, but was too deep in the hole to see it. He yelled to Jeremy. “shut it off!” The water continued to trickle. He yelled louder. “hey!” He could make out the faint roar of the propane heater on the other side of the house. He wasn’t about to crawl back. He screamed long at the top of his lungs, “HEY!” If no one heard that, he thought, then no one could hear him here.
If he got out of the hole, he could bring the story back to the shop, thought Lew. But he knew it wouldn’t sound like the stories the other guys told. They had that point – the peak – that the guy would build to or a punch line he would recite and repeat and emphasize with gestures to make sure everyone knew when to laugh or when to be amazed. This wasn’t one of those stories. There was no sound bite – no sudden change. There was no beginning to this, and no end in sight. Just the forever of every day stretching out before him like a dark, unending crawl space. No one would believe how deep he was under this house. He’d have to drag them here, and even then it wouldn’t be the same because then they’d have company. Someone who could hear them. Lew’s story would just make them feel alone. Best he could do was tear Jeremy down for disappearing. The guys would get that.
Lew screamed to no one until he was full and tired like after a big meal. He lay his head down in the crook of his elbow, closed his eyes, and nestled into the dirt like a rat as he listened to the water trickle out of the fitting and run down its own icicles into a pool that fed a river that the earth was too hard and cold to absorb.
I like this very much. Such detail and concision. Good WORK.
So vivid. This piece left me wanting more of this kind of writing!
Great story. Come for the plumbing exerience, stay for the existential dread.
Great story! Nice pacing and subject matter. The ending feels right and full of no promise but the promise of the cold, darkness of the earth, which is always right there, beneath us.
I like to add the line onto the ending just for kicks, “And that restful moment was when the skunk chose to reappear…”