Son, You’ll Be a Plumber Someday



I should probably start out by saying I didn’t, and still don’t, know the first thing about plumbing.

A little late for a confession. She stood off to the side in deference to my skill and expected me to fix a leak in her bathroom, and I stood staring at the opened wall in a sort of awe at the chaos I wreaked, the viscera of pipes splayed across the tiled floor, bleeding water. My patient was dying, and I could only nod and tell her that everything was alright, it’s all part of the process. The only thing that kept her from shrieking, slapping me across the face, throwing me out of her house and her life forever, is that she did not know any better. Still, it had been three hours and I had yet to declare the victory cry of every plumber worth his while, “ah, well there’s your problem right there!”

None of this was my idea, you should know. What else but my father could have made me become a plumber against my will? It’s always what the father wants in tales like this, isn’t it? The father sacrificing his son’s aspirations on the altar of his own legacy like Abraham offering Isaac up to slaughter. My father, of course, was a master plumber. You should have seen the small miracles he could perform with a few lengths of copper. While I was growing up my family endured the usual hardships of any other moderately well-off family, but what we never had to endure was problems with plumbing. A flooded basement would become in mere minutes thoroughly sub-pumped through and ready for junk storage once again, thanks to my father’s ingenuity and skill. Our mornings might have been glum at times, but our morning showers would never want for proper temperatures and just the right amount of robust water pressure pulsating from the impeccably-installed oscillating shower head. Leaks? Don’t get my father started on leaks. Leaky faucets made my father laugh the same way a dirty joke would to a tavernful of poker-playing truck drivers. I remember, after each and every Thanksgiving, when others would wake up in the dark early morning to shop for the upcoming holiday season, my father would get up just as early to winterize the house pipes. He would finish, and wait patiently for the solstice, the first day of winter, and then he would take me by the hand, bundle us both up in our warm winter clothes, and lead me to the front porch, where he and I would wait for the tolling of midnight to herald December the twenty-first. That midnight being reached, he would just stare into the starry horizon and whisper “do your worst… do your worst…”

Oh, the plumbing feats my father could perform. But that was my father, and that was years ago. Now I’m just embarrassing myself. I impotently whacked away at the copper viscera before me with my plumber’s wooden baseball bat with a rusty nail sticking out; predictably it did not fix the leak. This was my father’s idea as well. My first day on the job I expected a kit full of the usual plumber’s tools, and my father simply gave me a wooden baseball bat with a rusty nail sticking out. “If you can fix a leak with a wooden baseball bat with a rusty nail sticking out, you can fix a leak with anything.” I was not so sure myself but I deferred to his wisdom. So far, whether a lack of my skill or a mistake on his part, the wooden baseball bat with the rusty nail sticking out has broken more plumbing systems than it has repaired, and so in this instance he has yet to be proven right (by me, anyway).

“Is everything all right?” I whacked away some more with the wooden baseball bat with the rusty nail sticking out, smiling as not comfortably as I possibly could. It would not be so bad if she were doing something, anything else, usually people like her periodically check up on me every half hour or so and then go back to reading a book or housekeeping or cooking dinner or what have you, and it takes a while for them to notice my bungling and throw me out, but she just kept standing there the whole time, trusting me, or waiting for me to let her down, or simply live up to her meager expectations of me, who knows. I liked her, I did not want to disappoint her, I in fact wanted her to like me too. If it had been any other situation, anywhere else in the world, any other context possibly imaginable, I could have struck up a decent conversation with her, she could have found my gentle jokes amusing, I would have found her taste in bad books and movies very interesting, and so forth. Something beautiful could have come out of this, if only I was not a plumber, and if only she had not had leaky pipes.

“Maybe,” I attempted in the most professional, least ridiculous mien I could muster, “maybe it’s not a plumbing issue. I mean, I think I already took out all the pipes you have, none of them seem to be in disrepair—” when the mold cruelly mocked my incompetence. YOU HAVE A LEAK, the mold spelled out in black rotten letters on the ceiling overhead, AND IT’S PRETTY BAD. She asked me what I was saying, and I muttered “nothing, just thinking out loud to myself.” Thinking out loud to myself? That doesn’t even make any sense.

I’ll tell you what I would rather be doing, what I would have liked to do for the rest of my life, instead of this plumbing nonsense. It might sound a little silly, no more ridiculous than me as a successful plumber I will grant you, but still outlandish enough where I would be taking the risk of making you think I’m making this all up as I go along, but, well here goes nothing:

I can speak to animals. It’s true. I have an innate ability to intuit an animal’s thoughts and emotions, and communicate with them somehow, in some sort of unspoken pan-animal language. Mind you, I do not bark at other dogs and meow at other cats, nothing like that. That would be absurd. But anyway, it’s true, I can converse with the animal kingdom. People used to call me Doolittle. After the famous fictional doctor from the TV show who could speak to animals. And they would do this because I had a similar means of communicating with animals, like the TV show character. They would call me this as a nickname. My real name is not Doolittle, you see.

When I was a boy I used to spend my spare time after school in the local menagerie, surrounded by the most beautiful, exotic birds you have ever seen in a National Geographic magazine, and just gossip. The zoo was also a favorite haunt of mine. The animals, while a little upset by their confinement, were by and large quite friendly, not to mention more than willing to help a young struggling student with his homework. Most people think dolphins are the smartest animals in the world, and for the most part the dolphins I knew were fairly intelligent, but for my money, when you have an algebra problem or two you just can’t quite crack, look no further than a well-educated chimpanzee.

Some people wondered why, in light of this skill, I did not decide to go into veterinary medicine, a field in which the ability to speak to animals would have been invaluable. It never interested me, biology, it seemed to me too much like another set of rules to follow, and I was never comfortable with rules, yes, an ineffable dogma of this tendon’s connected to that bone, the whatever artery’s connected to some organ or other. Frankly, it reminded me too much of plumbing.

My father would have none of it, however, this business with animals, neither veterinary medicine nor mere conversation thereof; he would suffer no son of his to waste his time flapping his jaw at dumb things that are not supposed to speak back. No, his son was going to be a plumber like his father, his father’s father, his father’s father’s father, and so on. I would spend entire days and nights in the zoo, and my father would be furious, because it meant I was shirking my responsibility, my future, my destiny, as a master plumber. The zoo keepers were also none too pleased by it, since technically I was trespassing, and that sort of thing is against the law. My dreams of animal discourse, therefore, were trounced fairly early in my lifetime, offered up on the altar of my father’s legacy like, but I already told you that.

Instead, I will tell you the act that finalized my fate once and for all, how he sealed the deal, sealed the leaky pipe of my weak resolve to become a plumber once and for all. One day, it seems so long ago now, my father decided to retire, and he wanted us to give him a Viking funeral. We obliged him, of course we did, for who were we to tell my father he could not leave the world behind, leave plumbing behind, if he so desired? We found a wide, gentle river, built for him a funereal raft, and on it placed all his worldly, prized possessions, his plumbing tools, lengths of pipe to connect plumbing systems in the next world, and our mother too.

You might be surprised by my father’s wish to be sent off to sea; the sea, water in its unpiped form, disorganized, rowdy and boisterous, not a help to anyone who wants to wash his hands or make some tea, or soup maybe. Yet my father, even if he did not love it, had always held a deep respect for the mighty, churning sea. To him, a body of water was not chaos, not disunity, but instead represented the potential, the possible plumbing system, water that could be piped from one reservoir to another, the Atlantic a conduit of copper that channeled its salty deep waters from the Americas to Europe, the Mississippi a mighty pipeline pumping downstream across the Midwest, unparalleled in its immense and unwavering water pressure. To send my father off in the sea, then, was to send him to the great undiscovered plumbing network, the primordial, powerful waters of antiquity unpiped, unchallenged, a challenge he would relish in the afterlife.

Well, we were just about ready to send his raft off in those very waters. He lied in repose on the raft, which was now cluttered with a lot of his stuff and our mother too, and frankly, just about ready to sink, when he motioned for me to come close to him. I did, and then he motioned for me to come closer. Since I was in no real position to refuse, I did. He then lifted up his head and whispered something in my ear. I’ll never forget it. It was the title of this story. That was what he whispered to me, his last words. Well, actually, it was more something like, the title of this story, and then “I just know you will. You’ll see.” Or maybe there was a little preamble. Maybe something like “Before I go, I want to tell you something,” then the title of this story, then, “I just know it.” Maybe he said “You’ll see” after “I just know it,” or even “I just know you will,” because I think I mentioned that earlier as well. Or, now that I think about it, he might have spoken my name. Instead of the portion of the title of this story that places the emphasis on my filial relationship to him, he might have addressed me by my signifier, and then spoken the rest of the title of the story. I like the idea of him saying my name.

You see, I am trying to be as specific as possible, because I do not want to give the impression that I’m just making up a bunch of absurd nonsense. True stories carry with them a little more weight than fictional ones, I think. A memoir can lend itself that much more power when it is hit home upon the reader that the events of that memoir actually happened in real life. Truth is stranger than fiction, a lot of people like to say, and I am sure there’s a good reason why. I also did not wish to literally recite the last words of my father, at least the ones that comprise the title of this story, because there is something artificial, I think, something hopelessly contrived, about a story that unapologetically recites the titular word or phrase to bestow upon it some sort of emphasis or symbolic weight, especially when it depends on that titular utterance alone to provide this sort of depth when it is utterly nonexistent otherwise. I don’t think that really happens in real life.

Anyway, before I could even get a word in edgewise, my father bestowed upon me his blessing. As if I could refuse. It was his funeral, after all. And so, to date, I have been a plumber, or tried to be, anyway, according to his final wishes. Which led me to this woman’s house, where I had finally given up. I knelt hunched over the wall and its piping guts and wept, I was a failure, a fraud, this would be at least the fiftieth time I would be thrown out, it was all a matter of time. She went to my side and suggested, “what if it isn’t a plumbing problem? Maybe something else is creating these water leaks.” That would be ridiculous, I thought; the thought was so ridiculous it actually shocked me into not weeping for a moment, and during this pause in my weeping I could still hear the faint sound of weeping, from something else, not my own, that is. Then it struck me. Of course! It had to be an elephant stuck in the walls. Everyone knows elephants produce the largest tears known to the world, so a weeping elephant could very well produce the water runoff that could easily be misconstrued as a plumbing deficiency.

I lifted the wooden baseball bat with the rusty nail sticking out over my head and demolished what was left of the wall, revealing none other than the elephant of my imagined guess. “Go on,” she told me, “I have a feeling you’re going to have to use your ‘special talent’ to fix this problem.” I figured she was right, I’d give it a shot. I asked the creature what was the matter. “It’s my ears,” it explained in between sobs. “My father is a famous circus elephant, he can fly with his overgrown ears. Well, ever since I was born, he would always pressure me into being a flying elephant. But I’m just no good at it, you see, in fact, the last time I tried flying I accidentally crashed into a construction site and got stuck, and the workers had no choice but to build this house around me! And anyway, I don’t want to be a flying elephant. Sure, my ears are a little big, but I want to be in the middle ring, with the adoring crowd all around me, and not up in the sky, far away from my fans, flopping these horrid ears around!” I told him I wish I could help him, but I was sorry, because I could not for the life of me think of a single similar problem of my own that I could use to relate to him. Just, I don’t know, believe in yourself? “It’s quite alright,” he said, calming down, “I actually feel much better, now that I talked it over with you. I guess that’s one of the ways you can bring someone to an epiphany, you know, just being there to listen, so that you can talk and work out your own problems and come to the conclusions you need. Well, that settles it, once I get out of here I’m going to the ringmaster and demanding he make me a real, honest-to-goodness dressage elephant.”

Well and good, I thought, but how was I to get him out of the walls? He was an elephant, after all, and not a mouse. A solution soon came to me without me having to think much about it, however: what with all the water the elephant generated through his weeping, and the structural damage I caused by both my plumbing and my attempting to free him, the house eventually became overrun with water, causing a flash flood that demolished the rickety house whole. The elephant did not mind flying just this one time back to the circus, and thanked me once again and waved goodbye with his trunk as he disappeared into the horizon. I waved back, and while using a cabinet or dresser or something I floated with her all the way to the local zoo, where the flood stabilized into a tepid, stagnant lake. I apologized to her for destroying her house, and she said it was quite alright, she could get herself another one the next day. I admitted I was not a plumber, she said she knew all along. And thank goodness for that, she added, for what good would a plumber have been against a weeping elephant? We then spent the remainder of the day talking to the animals, a little vexed by the water but nonetheless still happy to hear from me.

Though I enjoyed her company, I could not help but feel regret over the day’s events. I was still a plumber, or trying to be one, anyway, and once again I failed completely. What would my father think, to see me floating on a body of unpiped, unruly water, created through my ineptitude as a plumber, and talking to animals? It seemed implausible that I would meet him here, but not altogether impossible, and that gave me cause to worry. Maybe he never passed on, maybe my mother and he found a way to pipe up the river to another body of water, and then to another wide sea, and so on, only to find himself adrift on my absurd lake. It was one thing to respect, to revere the sea, but me, a plumber’s son, create a sea? The shame of it was too much to bear. I resolved to steel myself for tomorrow’s appointment. Soon, I told myself. Soon I would declare, once and for all, loud enough so my father, wherever in the world he drifted, would hear me, “ah, well there’s your problem right there!” Someday, I, like my father before me, would be a plumber.

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