We did not know, when we drove home for Christmas, the extent to which the plumbing was rumbling beneath the house. Imagine if you will a network of roots breaking into the old pipes. Imagine fine roots like a fiber mat, blocking all access out. Imagine the backing up involved.
Now imagine my family—mother and stepfather, brother, wife, two daughters, and a half dozen assorted aunts and uncles and cousins all dropping by at various times. Imagine a Christmas meal—deep-fried turkey, a whole ham, green bean casserole and mashed potatoes. An entire boat of gravy. There’s going to be traffic, in and out of the smallest room of the house. There are going to be aerosol sprays applied. Candles lit, that sort of thing. It’s something we tend to ignore, that our bodies have functions other than stuffing food in them, until the pipes start rumbling.
But the stockings were hung on the mantel with care when we arrived. My mother stood at the stove stirring something. My stepfather welcomed us with peanut clusters he’d made in the crockpot. The windows were sprayed with fake frost, and candy canes hung from the tree. The house looked like a catalogue, complete with gingerbread cottage for my daughters to construct on the kitchen table, and we all settled in for some serious spirit.
It was in this spirit that the house began to recoil at the work we asked it to do. Had we been listening to anything other than our chewing, we might have heard the groans in the bowels of the basement, as if my stepfather were raising hound dogs down there. But we did not, because there was a gingerbread house to put together and gravy to stir and copious amounts of a different kind of spirit to consume.
So how it went down was like this: on the second day of Christmas, the old house gave to me, two clogged toilets, and plumbing blocked by roots of trees. My daughter was in the shower, and there came a mighty yell. It rumbled through the valley; it rattled in the dell. It pounded on the mountain and recoiled upon the flat, for in the bottom of the shower there was bubbling up some shat.
We did not, of course, apply rhymes to what was happening at the time. Nor did we romanticize the occurrence. My daughter fell out of the shower in her haste, and we all rushed to see what was the matter. We were thinking of spiders, a tarantula maybe, come in out of the cold, but the matter was solid. And a little bit of brown liquid. But mostly solid, lumped there in the bottom of the shower like someone had mistaken it for the toilet.
The toilet was bubbling as well, and when we opened the lid a foul spew of gas belched out. We could hear the rumbling in the pipes, like some forgotten creature just now stirring with all this yule-tide spirit.
My mother was mortified. Here we all were, come from disparate parts of the country to celebrate Christmas, and there was literal shit in the shower. I told my mother we could just call it a yule-log, but my words did not, for some reason, seem to comfort her.
My stepfather took the practical approach. He went down to the basement and got a five-gallon bucket. He scooped the offensive material with a wooden spoon and deposited it in the empty lot behind their house.
Meanwhile, my mother called a plumber. But it had gotten to be Christmas Eve, and no one was answering calls. The rest of us were making poop jokes in the living room while my mother listened to phones ring. My stepfather went to work with a plunger, but each push in the toilet, as Newton told us long ago, with his equal and opposite forces, sent up a bubble of shit in the shower.
“It’s backed up somewhere,” he said, there on his knees, glasses hanging from his head as I helped him up.
And because we are men, we went outside to try to find the offending area. I grabbed the shovels. He put on gloves. But it was cold and the snow had just started, and though we had a general idea where the pipes were, we only dug down a few inches before realizing this called for more manpower than we could command.
My stepfather did not want to give up. He was in his late 70s, and got tired sometimes walking up the steps in his house, but he did not want to give up. He’s from that DIY school of manhood you tend to find in his age group, the kind of men who want to be near someone working with tools if tools are not available to them. These are men who are always worrying something will break. They are always adjusting and tightening, always wondering if that table is level. They’re checking tires before you leave on a long trip. They’re asking how long since you put in antifreeze.
So we stood in the yard while I tried to talk him inside. I’ll say my stepfather was made of sterner stuff, but maybe he saw already what would happen if he did not fix the pipes. He may have done the calculations: number of people in the house times amount of food, divided by the average length of digestion. What I’m saying is, maybe he foresaw the next few days in a way I didn’t.
When we went back inside my daughters and brother were watching a bad horror flick. It had just started, but they were already making fun of it, which is something my family likes to do. We insert dialogue. We narrate the thoughts of the characters on the screen. We point out plot holes, amuse ourselves with our own cleverness, enjoy our time curled up together in a warm house while the snow and wind blow outside, even if said house has a small bit of shit still sitting in the shower.
In retrospect, I should have stuck with my stepfather. But there seemed no reason to do so. The plumber wouldn’t come for another two days and we couldn’t find the pipes outside in the cold and dark, so there seemed nothing else to do except entertain ourselves. Most of our time has to do with entertaining ourselves. Forgetting for a while that the toilet is stopped up, and there are bills to pay on Monday. That the plumber won’t be here for two days. Instead, focus on the bad writing. The obvious plot failings. The horrible dialogue and the bad mistakes the characters make, and feel better, for a few hours, that you are not that stupid.
About the time the second movie ended my stepfather came out of the bathroom, where he had been the whole time. He said he had rigged a system so we could use the toilet until the plumber got here. The restroom in the hallway would be for Number One, the restroom in the back for Number Two.
“Don’t flush,” he said. He told us he had timed it, and that the pipes could handle being flushed every few hours, so he would do it. “Just close the lid when you finish, and I’ll take care of it.”
What else could we have done except believe him? It was a perfectly plausible story. This was a man who, when I was a kid, used to wake before everyone else to build a fire so the house would be warm when we got up. When we got home in the evenings he left the car running and went inside to build the same fire back up, and he waved to us from the door when it was warm enough to come in. What I’m saying is, this was a good man, a man who would carry extra so those he loved didn’t have to carry any.
We all knew this, so please believe me when I say it’s not our fault we didn’t see the plot holes, nor wonder if our imaginings of his inner thoughts, like a character in a movie, were correct. We were too concerned with our own cleverness, cracking jokes as if we didn’t have a care this Christmas, because we knew that was how he wanted it. We went about our business, scrounging through the leftovers every few hours, draining the gravy boat, pilfering the pumpkin roll, watching all the bad movies we could stand. The snow kept falling and we curled up tighter together as the days stayed dark. I held my daughters close and we laughed so hard our stomachs hurt. I hadn’t seen my mother and brother and stepfather in over a year. I hadn’t forgotten about all the work and wishes of fatherhood I carry around in longer than that, so we all sat in each other’s company and ignored the worries that waited on us once the holidays were over, all the pipes that would have to be replaced.
When nature called, we went. We used the appropriate restrooms, and followed the appropriate instructions. And it was not an ideal situation, but it was fine, because this was family. And there are things you do for family, things you forget, burdens you bear on your own so your loved ones don’t have to sit with the worry, so they can just enjoy the snow and the bad movies and the gravy boat.
On the morning my family got ready to leave, to make the long drive back to our small home, already knowing it would feel smaller for a few days without everyone beside us, I got up early to warm the car. I wanted to let my wife and daughters have a few more moments of sleep before having to brave the cold.
It was still dark. I got dressed in the light of my phone. I made my way down the hallway in the dark to find my stepfather easing open the back door. He was holding the five-gallon bucket, and the big wooden spoon, and he looked like he had been caught doing something he wasn’t supposed to do, which was about the time I realized I hadn’t heard a toilet flush in two days.
What he had been doing, see, if you haven’t been able to follow the plot, or the inner thoughts of the writer, is scooping the shit we left in the back toilet and carrying it outside. He woke before dawn and went to the back bathroom and knelt on his 78-year-old knees and scooped shit out of the toilet with a big wooden spoon, one that would have to be thrown away or burned, or burned and then thrown away. He put it in the five-gallon bucket and carried it out in the cold and dark and dumped it in the overgrown lot behind his house, and he did it because he didn’t want anyone else to have to do it.
I should probably explain, before the end, that I took the bucket from him, and went out in the cold. And I should tell you that it didn’t seem very cold. That the snow wasn’t that bad. That the smell from the bucket wasn’t that bad, that none of this was really ever that bad. That we laugh about it now, though my mother is still mortified, and my stepfather will be as well when he reads this, because more than anything he thinks people shouldn’t make a fuss over small things. That there are some things that need doing, and you do them, simply to save others the effort, or embarrassment.
Sometimes, when I wake before everyone else in my house that seems smaller now that my daughters are gone, I think of that bucket of shit. How cold it was outside, my stepfather in his houseshoes shuffling through the snow. I think of the burdens we try to bear. I think that shoveling shit is a solution only a man could have come up with, one who was embarrassed at his house for breaking down, as if he should have fixed it beforehand so no one would have been discomfited over Christmas. A man who quietly moves through the rooms turning off the lights late at night after everyone is asleep. Who checks the weather when you’re leaving on a long trip, worried snow is heading your way. Who tells you to call when you get there. Who makes a fire in the morning before anyone else wakes so the house might be warm. A man who would shovel a mountain of shit if he thought it would make life a bit easier for those he loves, so that they might sit in the warmth and light and laughter a bit longer.