It’s hot in this house. It’s hot and it smells like some dude has been sweating into an old copy of Maxim magazine and then ripping cologne sample strips from the pages and jamming them into his armpits to freshen up.
The owner of the house is moving to Chicago to pursue comedy. He is not particularly funny in person. He has hidden the toilet paper in both of the bathrooms, or maybe he ran out. I watch his girlfriend carry a basket of laundry out to her car and wonder.
A man arrives to scope the sewer. He strides through the open front door with his arm extended. “Let’s shake hands now, because you won’t want to shake them later,” he says, then laughs before we can. He points at the general inspector, who is inspecting something behind us. “This man has heard that joke a million times now.”
So it goes in the small-pond brotherhood of real estate contractors.
There commences a flurry of equipment carrying-in. I stand in the living room and check my phone. There is nothing happening on my phone. Even the weather report hasn’t changed in the last 20 minutes. A bead of perspiration inches its way down my thigh and over the arch of my knee. I walk upstairs, roam the bedrooms futilely, and walk downstairs again with the stairs creaking and popping at every step.
I need to be here, but I’m utterly useless. It’s these two dudes who will tell us if this house is worth buying, or if it’s a hellpit into which we will simply dump forklift-loads of paper bills to watch them smolder, then ignite in flames.
I check my phone again.
There is a cacophony of voices in the basement, so I tread on down. The sewer guy and the general guy are set up on opposite ends of the room, shouting to each other, catching up on the latest industry gossip. The sewer guy has a laptop on the washing machine, the cap off the main water line, and a cable feeding into the gaping black maw. The cable is looped around a large wheel. He spins the handle of the wheel, and the cable shoots deeper into the pipe. I step closer, peering at his work over the beau’s shoulder.
Onscreen the interior of the pipe is illuminated in full color. The white PVC dome turns to a mucky brown at the bottom. I watch in mute horror as an insect runs a full loop-the-loop around the pipe and right across the camera lens. “Looks like we’ve got some soil in here,” the sewer guy notes. Before I can ask if this is a bad thing, he is tapping a fingernail on the monitor at something green shooting out of the sludge. “Oh, hey, there’s a beansprout!” he says.
I am disgusted. I am appalled.
I am utterly enchanted.
The general inspector has moved upstairs, and the beau thinks he should follow him. I do not want to leave. How could I, with this kind of high-stakes action? After the beau is gone, the sewer guy turns and locks his watery blue eyes with mine for a moment. “I’ve done this a million different times with a million different couples,” he says. “The women always want to stay.”
I choose to take this as a compliment.
The PVC has turned to clay, and now we’re in the original pipe. The water here runs clear and free except for the occasional small root intrusion. I watch the camera shoot forward, transfixed.
“It’s like science but with like, you know, history!” I exclaim, because I am both intelligent and eloquent.
He chooses to take this as a compliment. “Oh, speaking of history,” he says, fumbling in his pockets for a phone. “Wait’ll I show you this.”
What he shows me are photos of a prohibition-era speakeasy that had been sealed for decades before he uncovered it on a job. There is a close-up of a bottle of booze buried inside a crumbling brick wall. “The owner had this building for 50 years and never knew this was here,” he adds.
Before I can adequately express my admiration the pipe on the monitor turns green, which means we have reached the city’s water line. Everything looks good, he says, except for some minor decay along an area of clay, which he intends to find and mark for repair.
“Can I come with you?” I ask in a pitch decidedly above normal. I am the shrieking schoolgirl of sewer scoping, now.
Turns out what you need to geolocate a section of pipe from above ground is, essentially, a neon orange plastic ray gun. When switched on a male voice announces the brand name with a suave sneer: “Ridgid.” As the sewer guy marches around the yard the gun emits a spastic, keening trill. It’s The Jetsons meets an ice cream truck meets a theremin.
Several minutes pass. The beau rejoins us and we become a strange single-file entourage, traipsing back and forth through the tall grass behind our wailing, spluttering leader.
“Hey, neighbor,” a voice floats down from the next yard. We peer up, through the bushes, at a skinny hipster-looking guy standing on a rooftop patio. “What’s happening over there?”
“We’re trying to find a pipe in the ground,” the beau calls.
“Sounds like an episode of The Twilight Zone,” he replies.
Presently the gun’s electronic warble flattens into a low, dull tone. The sewer guy plants two yellow flags in the ground to mark the spot.
We are finished here.
We go to shake hands and he juts his arm out instead. “You don’t want to touch these,” he reminds us of his hands. We bump elbows, he packs up, and he is gone.
By the time the general inspector gets in his truck and drives off, we are left with full heads, conflicted hearts, and a long list of recommended repairs.
We walk the sticky rooms again as strangers, mentally scrubbing the fixtures, fixing the floors, scraping the ceilings, repainting the walls, imagining what might be.