The Talkin’, Bleeding Out the Yard, Snow Covered Meter, Pud Pipes’ Psychic Cornholing, Wade in the Water, Wade in the Water, Children, Fabulous Baker Brothers to the Rescue Blues (a Horribly Leaky True Tale)
This morning we were visited by a man from the water department. The man knocked on the door at the crack of 10 a.m., stirring the dogs up and nearly making me spill my coffee on my PJs. In fact, the wife and I were both still in our jammies, since she had the day off. My PJs being the more street-worthy, I went to the door to see who it was and what he wanted. After introductions, the man explained that he had come to read our water meter but couldn’t find it under the remains of the foot of snow that fell last week. However, he continued, while he’d been walking along the driveway on his way to our front door to ask us about the location of said meter, he’d noticed that the water service line to our home was bleeding out into our side yard from, apparently, two separate locations. He asked if we were aware of this? We were not. Or, at least, I wasn’t at first. Then I flashed back to something I’d noticed a couple of days before.
I remembered that two days prior, while walking along the driveway myself, I had wondered why there were two huge bare patches in the thick layer of snow covering our sloped side yard. They were bare patches that ran clear down to the property line, exposing a great tract of wet grass in the otherwise snow-packed yard. It seemed to me to be caused by melt runoff from the snow on the driveway, as I could see water trickling in a sheet from near the top of the slope. Seemed to be melting quite a bit, in fact, which was also odd given that it was 22 degrees outside. But what did I know? It made enough sense to me in the 3 seconds I devoted to thinking about it, so I just kept walking.
I had no sooner finished with that flashback, when I was hit by another one: a memory of yesterday morning, when I went to make coffee only to find that the water pressure in the kitchen sink wasn’t quite what it normally is. Ah, well. These things sometimes take a while to warm up, my pre-coffee brain had informed me. Shrug shrug shrug.
All of these are what you might call red flags. Great, big, university-drill-field-flag-pole-sized red flags, draped down the side yard and bunched up in a wad in the sink.
“What’s going on?” the wife asked, as I returned inside and began racing to find some clothes.
“We’ve got burst pipes in the yard,” I growled.
“That’s what the guy from the water department says.”
As I pulled on pants and boots, I told her about the bare patches. She was not amused.
We both headed outside. Sure enough, the bare spots I’d seen near the driveway were still there and water was coming up from the ground like a bubblin’ crude. (Water, that is. H2O. The base of tea.) The man from the water department explained that he’d been sent to investigate a leak after their sensors had flagged our particular hill as the source of a massive outpouring of water.
“What do we need to do?” I asked, quite panicked at the idea of the enormous bill we’d be receiving already and wanting to immediately stop it from climbing higher.
“Wellllllll,” the man said, taking far longer to say the word than necessary. In fact everything he said after that was spoken at an infuriatingly glacial pace. “When you get your water bill, see, what you’ll need to do is to call down to Peggy at the water department. (Enormous pause) You call Peggy and you let her know that you’d like to file a leakage claim for your water. You won’t have to pay full price for it, cause it’s a leakage claim, but you’ll still have to pay some. And, like I said, you’ll have to file a leakage claim…”
“No,” I said, interrupting, barely keeping my temper. “What do WE NEED TO DO about the water pouring out of our yard right now?!”
“Ohhhhh,” he said. “You probably need to cut the water off.”
If he’d been standing any closer, and if I was the kind of guy who went around punching people in the throat, he might very well have been punched in his.
“Yes,” I said, fingernails slipping one by one from my hold on the cliff’s edge of fury. “But. What. Do. We. Need. To. Do. About. Getting. It. Repaired?” This was a first for us, having never experienced a pipe burst before, and I didn’t know if he needed call someone at the water department to send a team out to fix this, or if we were responsible for assembling our own team. In retrospect, the answer really should have been obvious, but I’ve already provided evidence I don’t always notice the obvious.
“Wellllllll,” he said, “you’ll need to call a plumber.” The man from the water department recommended Dave Davison (not his real name) who was “a real good plumber” and was actually a neighbor of ours, though not one we readily knew. He also gave us the name of another plumber whom he said we should avoid at all costs. In fact, he said that his department had received so many complaints about the man that it was now standard policy to just warn people not to use him. As to cutting the water off in the interim, however, what we’d need to do was find the water meter. Did we know, he asked, where it was?
“Yes. It’s down on the corner of the yard,” I said pointing to the lower end of our acre, where it meets the driveway. The meter was at the bottom of a 15 inch diameter pipe that was covered by a round mini-manhole of the same size, which was, at the moment, covered by at least half a foot of snow.
From his truck, the man from the water department fetched a shovel and a long white bar on a string, which turned out to be a metal detector. I pointed him again to a six foot patch of snow, beneath which I knew the manhole to be located. He walked over it, but his metal detector detected no metal except that of his shovel.
“Not finding anything,” he said.
“I think it’s further up here,” the wife said, pointing to a section of snow a few feet higher up the slope.
“No. It’s in this area,” I said, circling my arm to indicate the original spot. I couldn’t provide a specific location within my chosen section of ground, but knew it was within that part of the yard. The man tried there again but still couldn’t find it. So he began walking down the hill, further away from where the meter was located. And, of course, he still wasn’t getting any hits. Now I was well and truly pissed, but I knew I did not need to vent any anger at either of the two humans near me, no matter how annoyed I was that neither of them seemed to accept my estimation of where the meter was located. Instead, I decided to vent my anger at the snow itself.
I stomped up the driveway in my crampon-wrapped boots and fetched my snow shovel, which I stomped back with, determined to find the meter myself. I walked to the center of the area where I knew the meter was located and began chucking shovelfuls of snow with ferocity. After a minute I’d uncovered nine or so small patches of yard. My hope was to shotgun blast the area to catch the edge of the mini-manhole lid, rather than attempting a full on excavation. My efforts, however, were not fruitful.
“I still remember it being up here,” the wife said.
“It’s not up there,” I said. “I know. I’m the one who has to mow over it.”
The man from the water department had continued on down the driveway, waving his metal detector bar over the narrowing patch of snow-covered grass along it, still finding nothing. I was annoyed because his actions continued to call into question my knowledge of where my damn meter was located, but I decided to just let him go sick `cause A) I didn’t really want to deal with him anyway; and, B) because I wanted to be the one to uncover it, exactly where I’d been telling him it was, so I could quietly and passive-aggressively gloat about it.
“Do you want me to shovel?” the wife asked.
“No,” I said. Shovel. Shovel. Shovel. “I’m way too pissed off.” Shovel. Shovel. Shovel. “I need to do this.”
“How about dig some up here, then,” the wife said, pointing to her chosen area. I knew for a fact that it wasn’t up there, but I’d demolished most of the manhole-sized chunks of snow from my area and still hadn’t found anything. Hers had lots more snow, so I started shoveling further up the hill. The man from the water department, meanwhile, had passed the midway point of the driveway and I could stand to keep quiet no more.
“Sir, I promise you, it is not down there,” I said. “It is up here.”
The man agreed that it didn’t seem to be where he was looking, but he was operating on information from a guy who used to have the meter-reading route in our area and that guy had said it was on the driver’s side of the driveway if you were headed up it.
Yeah, it is, but it’s at the top of the driveway where our actual property begins, I angrily thought. Shovel. Shovel. Shovel.
“How about let me dig,” the wife offered again. Exhausted, I agreed.
The man returned with his metal detector and walked around with it in the area where the wife was digging. It still wasn’t detecting anything.
“Hope it ain’t one of them aluminum lids,” he said. “Was it silver?”
“No,” the wife said. “It was kind of an iron color.”
He kept on detecting and she kept digging and the county’s water supply kept pouring out of the ground.
“I’m telling you it is not up there,” I said as calmly as I could manage. “I know this. I have to mow here.” I then gestured, indicating the route I take along the edge of our yard, which runs me into the blackberry vines in the brush every time, but which is well above the meter that I don’t want to have to raise the blades of the mower to get over. “This,” I said, still wildly gesturing to my route, “is above the meter.”
Perhaps sensing my slipping hold on sanity the wife moved to dig back in my chosen area, picking at the few patches of snow left there. While she did, the man from the water department used his cell phone to reach the guy who used to have the meter route to ask him where the meter was again. From the sound of it, the guy was telling him exactly where I’d already told him.
“Here it is, here it is!” the wife said. The tip of the shovel had revealed the outer edge of a dark circle of metal, right at the edge of the brushline, just within the outer edge of the area I’d indicated. I was too exhausted to grin in triumph.
The man from the water department read the meter, did some math, and announced that it had already poured over 109,000 gallons of water down the yard. This made my knees weak. He then showed us how to shut it off at the meter. The wife and I decided that instead of immediately cutting off the water, we needed to return to the house and fill up our supply of water containers. For all we knew, this would be a multi-day process to repair and we needed to have our ducks in a row.
“Wellllllll,” the man began again, slowly chewing over whatever else it was he wanted to say to us. I turned and walked away, leaving the wife to listen. I just couldn’t handle any more from him. (And please note that I fully realize that my anger with him was essentially me being nutty, because he was a perfectly nice man and didn’t get snotty with us no matter how much reason he might have had to do so. However, he was a perfectly nice man who was driving me nutty because he wouldn’t hurry up and get to the point of any of his sentences, increasing the amount of time our house had to bleed out.)
After the derecho storms of 2012, when our area was without power for a week, we learned that it’s always wise to have options when it comes to emergency survival gear. We already owned a big blue 10 gallon water cube, left over from summers spent with an unreliable well, back in Princeton, so I grabbed that from the basement, along with a number of other water-dispensing containers in our apocalypse prep/camping supplies. I started filling these, and then turned the process over to the wife, who had by then returned. Soon every stew pot, soup kettle, canning boiler, tea pitcher and bathtub in the place was full of water.
I grabbed the yellow pages and began playing voicemail phone tag with our neighbor plumber first. I eventually got through only to learn that he had over a month’s worth of jobs ahead of ours and would have to decline. So I started at the top of the list of plumbers. The first one listed also had a month of jobs ahead of us. The second was the plumber we’d been warned against, so I skipped him. The third, however, was that of a large regional plumbing company whose name I recognized and, for some reason, sent up warning signals in my head.
“Is there some reason I should have warning signals going off my head when I see the name Pud Pipes Plumbing?” (Again, not the real name, though it rhymes much the same.)
“I don’t know,” the wife said.
“I think we used them in Princeton and I think I remember not liking them,” I said. I couldn’t quite recall the event in question, but they are one of the bigger plumbing outfits in the region, so I gave them a call. Pud Pipes’ receptionist heard my plea and said she could have someone call me by 4p. It wasn’t ideal, but at least it was a callback.
Having filled every possible container that could hold water, I went out and used a wrench to shut off the valve at the meter.
Pud Pipes called back before noon to get directions to the house and said they’d be there in 10 minutes. It was around then that the wife then remembered something we’d been told by the previous owner of our house, which concerned the water service line. Not long after we contracted on the house, there had been a similar pipe burst in the yard. Our real estate agent, Jill, had told us that the homeowners, the Shaffers, were having it repaired, but not to be alarmed if we saw freshly dug dirt in the yard during our upcoming visit with the home inspector. Weeks later, during the closing process on the house, Mr. Shaffer had told us that if we ever had any similar pipe problems we should be aware that he had constructed the house with a sheath pipe running underground from the basement to the edge of the driveway. The service line was run within this pipe, so that if the line itself ever had to be replaced, the driveway and garage would not have to be dug up to do so. The trouble was, it’s been two years since he told us this, so we’d forgotten the exact details. We certainly HOPED the sheath pipe ran all the way to the yard, but maybe it only ran to the edge of the concrete garage floor? We couldn’t recall. So I phoned Mr. Shaffer to ask, but only got as far as the question when the Pud Pipes van pulled up, stirring the dogs into a slavering frenzy at the kitchen window. I went outside to greet the plumbers while the wife tried to find a quiet place where she could talk to Mr. Shaffer.
The Pud Pipes plumbers were a guy in his 50s and a guy in his late 20s, though the guy in his 20s seemed to be the senior member of the team. I led them over to the yard to show them the bare patches that were no longer pouring water. The wife soon joined us. The younger guy looked at the bare patches and began shaking his head.
“You do realize this entire line is gonna have to be replaced, right? You do realize that?” he said. “This ain’t something we’re going to be able to just repair,” he added ominously.
“No, we didn’t realize that,” the wife said. “But we have to have water.”
The younger man walked along the driveway, still shaking his head. To see him, you would think that the yard not only had a busted pipe but also a venereal disease. The older guy stood by us, trying to make small talk by saying our house was really nice. The younger man then wanted to know where our utilities connected to the house. We pointed. Did we have underground electric? We nodded. There followed more grave head-shaking and the wringing of hands. The Pud Pipes guys walked down near the meter to confer with one another. The wife and I similarly conferred at the top of the drive.
I asked her what Mr. Shaffer had said about the pipe. She said that she hadn’t been able to hear him very well, because of the dogs, but it sounded as if the sheath pipe only extended to the edge of the garage and not beneath the pavement to the edge of the yard. She based this on possibly having heard him say say that they built it that way so the garage floor wouldn’t have to be torn up.
“Are you sure?” I asked, still hoping for an under pavement pipe miracle.
“No. I’m not sure. The dogs wouldn’t shut up.”
The guys from Pud Pipes finished their quiet meeting and then asked to see where the water connected to the house, so we took them to the basement and showed them the service line poking out of the larger sheath pipe. The younger guy shook his head some more in a way that suggested our service line not only had a venereal disease and that it was communicable. The younger guy returned to the van, muttering something about having to dig through the driveway. I wanted to tell him that wouldn’t be necessary, but I didn’t know for sure. So I called Mr. Shaffer back to confirm our confirmation. Turns out, I was right. The sheath pipe did extend beneath the driveway. We were saved! Or, at least, our driveway was saved!
The younger man had retreated to the van to make a phone call, so I told the older man about the sheath pipe running the full length beneath the garage and driveway.
“Oh, that’s good, that’s good,” the older man said. He immediately went to the van and knocked on the driver’s side window. The younger guy, annoyed at the interruption, paused his phone call and rolled down the window to, but didn’t seem especially happy when told the good news.
Now, what I didn’t realize, until shortly after this, was that the younger plumber was something of a plumbing clairvoyant. Yessir, this kid had apparently been birthed with the God-given ability to psychically foreknow the installation history of any pipe with which he came into proximity. And I know this because when he finally emerged from the Pud Pipes’ van, some minutes later, he announced that the break in our service line was not beneath the obvious leak points in the yard, but was instead located somewhere within the sheath pipe itself. Furthermore, whoever had done the installation of said service line through said sheath pipe–either during the previous repair job or, hell, when the original pipe had been fed through the foundation itself–had probably jammed it in there good and cracked it in the process. Yessir. It was definitely broken off in that sheath pipe, which meant it was doubtful that they could use the sheath pipe to replace the line at all.
“But, the leaks are under the yard,” I said, pointing to the two giant bare patches a few feet away.
“Yeah, it’s all broken up down there,” the kid said, waiving an arm, indicating the entire length of the line from the meter to the house.
“But… the sheath line is already there,” I said. “The previous owner installed it for just this possibility. I don’t see what the problem is.”
The two of them hemmed and hawed over this, the older man backing up the younger man’s assertions at every turn. Yes, evidently it’s just devilishly hard to get a length of one inch diameter PVC pipe to fit through a length of four inch diameter PVC pipe. They saw this sort of thing all the time, the older man added. Why they’d had this one job this one time, in Princeton, that took a day of trying and they still couldn’t get it through. Yep. Bottom line, we were looking at around $3,800 to replace the whole line.
I stared at him for a long moment. This was one of those situations where I really really wanted to be able to call horseshit on them, but only had a gut feeling to go on and enough sense to know that the consignment of smelly organic matter I was being handed looked and smelled a lot like the rectum of a horse. However, I was talking to two ostensible plumbing experts, so what did I really know?
I asked them to excuse me, and went into the house to inform the wife. She also thought it smelled rather ripe. Being an intelligent lass, she also pointed out that if the service line truly was broken off within the sheath pipe, we’d have a basement full of water, because the only thing plugging up the interior end of the sheath pipe was a little bit of insulation and water always seeks the easiest path. I agreed. More egregious to me, however, was that these guys had speculated up a $3,800 bill based on a glance at the yard. And why were they so deadset against using the sheath pipe–the one part of this whole thing that seemed a guarantee to make their job easier?
“If you don’t want them to do it, don’t let them do it. There are other plumbers,” she said. “We haven’t called them all.”
I didn’t want to have to call them all. I wanted the plumbers I’d already called to be worth a damn, or at least not try to scam me to my face. Alas, it appeared not.
At the wife’s suggestion, I went outside to inform the Pud Pipes guys that we were going to seek a couple more estimates before making any decision. I’m pretty sure they knew we were going to tell them to move along, because they were both in the van with the engine running. They seemed neither surprised nor disappointed.
(After they drove away, I remembered my previous negative experience with their company. Back when we lived in Princeton, our hall toilet developed a leaky gasket beneath one of the bolts that held the tank to the bowl. Trouble was, because the bolt was on the tub side of the toilet, it was incredibly difficult to get both a wrench-grip on the nut at the top of the bowl and another wrench-grip on the bolt head within the tank itself. And if you got both, you couldn’t get an angle that gave you any kind of torque without slipping off one or the other. Eventually I figured out that the bolt and nut were pretty much fused by corrosion, but it took two days of me trying to wedge in there and force them to turn to learn that. “Call a plumber,” the wife said, after we’d had an unsuccessful crack at it together. We reasoned that a plumber would likely have a special tool that would allow them to do separate stuck bolts, so I looked in the phone book and called the plumber with the biggest ad, Pud Pipes. Turns out they did have a special tool for freeing stuck bolts. It’s called a Saws-All, a tool I already owned. They slid theirs in between the tank and the bowl and sawed the bolt in twain. They then replaced the bolt and charged me $200. TWO HUNDRED DOLLARS!!!!!!! For that kind of cash I could have bought a second Saws-All to go with the ONE I ALREADY OWNED, which I could have used to do the job myself. It’s completely my fault that I didn’t think of doing so, but perhaps I would have had more incentive to come up with such a solution if I’d realized Pud Pipes was going to charge a king’s ransom to do the job.)
Back inside, I scanned back down the list of plumbers in the phone book. It was a short list of seven, two of which had already turned us down, another being Pud Pipes, and a fourth being the plumber we’d been warned against by the water department itself. I really didn’t want to call any of the others, either, because after Pud Pipes I was just not in a mood to trust anyone. I needed a solid, reputable plumber. And that’s when it occurred to me who I needed to call.
“Jill!” I said. “I’ll call Jill!”
Jill is Jill Allman, our realtor. In addition to being a joy to work with on buying the house, she’d been very helpful in the two years since whenever we needed advice on home-improvement specialists. Ironically, the previous day, Jill had emailed to ask if I’d be willing to write a review of her real-estate services on Zillow.com. And I’d readily written a glowing one, which had mentioned her willingness to offer advice on non-asshat service-professionals. Here I was returning to the well of good advice, already.
I phoned Jill and told her our problem and how Pud Pipes was no longer an option. She immediately warned us not to choose the guy the water department had already warned us against. A number of people had warned her, too. (I don’t want to say the actual name of the plumbing service, but, if you need another rhyme, it will only take a Mennett.) Jill’s suggestion was Baker Home Services, run by a guy named Robert Baker and his brother Steve. They weren’t listed in the phone book, but she had the number.
Steve Baker answered when I called. I told him Jill had recommended them gave him the short short version of our problem, concentrating on the leaks and the sheath pipe, leaving out Pud Pipes. Knowing it might take a while for them to find time to come out, I added that we had plenty of water stored up inside, so we could survive. Steve asked the kind of questions you’d hope to hear from a reputable plumber who was out to diagnose what was actually wrong with your pipes. He also noted that because ours was an emergency situation, he and his brother could come out in about an hour. He sounded friendly and concerned—two qualities I look for in a plumber.
“I like that guy!” I told the wife, after hanging up. “I feel good about this already.”
True to their word, Robert and Steve drove up in their van in about an hour. In person, Steve was as friendly and warm as he’d sounded on the phone. Robert even moreso. They both shook my hand and came across as very chill fellows meeting a friend of a friend for the first time, ready to help.
I showed them to our leaks, now just muddy grass patches. The Baker brothers didn’t shake their heads in despair at the sight. I then showed them to the basement and pointed to the service line in its sheath pipe, as well as its in-house shut-off valve. They made no proclamations about sheath lines being plumbing death. In fact, Robert noted that our one inch PVC service line was typically some of the strongest stuff on the market and unlikely to rupture unless it was somehow sheared off, or crushed, or broken at a joint. And at the depth it was usually buried, freezing shouldn’t really be an issue unless there were extenuating circumstances.
Now here’s the cool bit: rather than speculate wildly about our particular breaks, and rather than reaching into the depths of their colon to come up with an exorbitant dollar figure on how much the work on the as-yet-unofficially-diagnosed problem was going to cost, the Bakers instead said they would go out and dig up the line at the obvious leak sites and have a gander. It was possible, they said, that the line could be repaired without a complete line replacement, but they wouldn’t know until they got a look at it. Glory be!
For the next 45 minutes or so, the Fabulous Baker Brothers set about with shovels to dig the earth. They started with the leak spot closest to the meter. When they’d uncovered it, they came and asked me to close off the valve in our basement so that they could turn on the one at the meter to see what happened. I did this and left them to it. Within a few minutes, they began digging at the second leak spot. A while later, they left to go buy some parts, came back, then left to buy a different part, because the one they had just bought wasn’t it. No worries.
When they were finished, the Baker brothers asked me to come have a look. The line, they said, had only been broken in one place, and had been caused by a cracked joint between sections of the PVC line. They said that it looked as though the ground might have settled there, causing it to crack, but it was hard to say for sure. They had replaced that section with a shorter length of flexible pipe that would be able to bend a bit if more settling occurred. They wrapped it and the other exposed section in some flexible insulation. They said that the previous repair to the pipe had also been insulated, but it was done using strips of a foam core insulation board, which water from the leak had run beneath until springing up at the lower spot in the yard, creating the appearance of a second leak. This was proven by the fact that the water had been turned back on at the meter and there were no leaks from either section of pipe. They’d also double-checked for unseen leaks by watching the meter for a while and seeing that it remained stable. Nice.
Robert pointed out that having a line replacement at some point in the future probably wouldn’t hurt. The repair they’d made would certainly last us a while, but we might eventually consider doing the whole line just to be sure. While I was standing there, Steve measured the distance between the meter and the back wall of the garage just to see how much pipe would be required. The job, Robert said, would probably run between $1,500 and $1,800.
“As opposed to the $3,800 Pud Pipes was going to charge me this morning?” I said. I’d said nothing of their competitors until that moment. They both laughed, but were not surprised. They had a few Pud Pipes stories of their own–nothing criminal, just prohibitively expensive. Then I told them the Saws-All story.
“Two hundred?!” Robert said. “You could have bought a brand new toilet and and had it installed by us for less than $200.”
They didn’t go so far as to say the Pud Pipes company did bad work, or anything; just that Pud Pipes tended to violently cornhole the wallets of customers who called them for home repair jobs, as opposed to the lower prices they had to bid in order to stay competitive for the new construction work they preferred. I told them I wanted to take a picture of their handiwork and email it to Pud Pipes with the caption: “Here’s your complete service line replacement, assholes!”
I was imagining the bill for the work the Bakers had done would come to somewhere between $300 and $500. These were plumbers, after all, and they had been working for around three hours. Our bill came to $239 and change. I nearly danced in the slushy driveway. I told the Fabulous Baker brothers I would sing their praises on Facebook.
“Maybe we should get a Facebook page?” Steve asked his brother. They then grinned at each other, as if knowing this wasn’t going to happen. They said that they only rarely advertise, are not listed in any phone book, and have more work than they can handle from word of mouth alone.
We bear a great deal of guilt about the tremendous waste our leaky pipe and our lack of vigilance has caused. This in a state which so recently had a major water supply tainted by a chemical spill, leaving 300,000 people out of water for weeks, with ongoing issues to the day of this writing. Our guilt is such that we can’t bring ourselves to waste any of the water we stored in all our spare containers—containers which now take up most of our counter space in the kitchen. Hopefully we can burn most of them off for cooking, laundry, toilet-flushing or dog watering.
As for the ultimate cost, the wife later gave me the short version of what the man from the water department had said after I’d fled for my sanity. It seems that our water is usually charged at around $6 per thousand gallons. We’d bled out over 109,000 gallons, making our potential bill somewhere in the $650 range. The man from the water department told her, however, that if we filed for leakage, they’d knock it down to $1 per thousand gallons. We normally pay $35 for our total bill.
Gonna be a big one next month either way.
Copyright © 2014 Eric Fritzius
This past Sunday was the day of my church’s cantata. Our choir director, Jeff, had chosen a high-energy cantata called God Coming Down, which was co-written by Travis Cottrell. It was gorgeous music, sometimes bordering on rock and dangerously danceable in places–at least for a Baptist church. I was asked to lend my tones as the narrator for the whole shebang and as the soloist on one of the quieter pieces called O Bless the Lord. We had been rehearsing this cantata since early October and despite getting snowed out for one rehearsal, we were ready to go on Sunday. I was also honored that Jeff had asked me to sing O Bless the Lord during the Sunday morning service as a preview to the evening’s performance. It went pretty good, too, if I do say so myself. I’d spent the whole morning avoiding things that would gum up one’s voice, such as not eating any cheese and not drinking any caffeine that might dry me out. I wanted my vocal cords properly moistened and warmed up for both morning and evening performances, cause the message of the song deserved it and I wanted to sound good in delivering it.
Let me back up a second.
The very first solo I ever sang at this church was in a Christmas cantata, round about the year 2002 or so–which was, basically, when I joined the church choir. Our choir director at the time assigned me two fairly short lines in one song and I managed to choke on the second of those lines in both performances we gave. The first, and most memorable of the performance chokings, was at the Alderson Federal Women’s Prison, 20 miles away in Alderson, WV. Now, there’s a chance you’ve heard of this place because of its most famous inmate of recent years, one Martha Stewart; however, Martha was still a few years away from her stay there. Our church choir of 2002 was invited to come and sing our cantata for the ladies of the prison and they, in turn, would sing some Christmas music for us. I was a bit nervous, having not sung a solo publicly since participating in one of those wretched high school show choir medley shows, featuring snippets of over-baked songs from the `50s, a show I was forcibly drafted into participating in because my third-string drama class didn’t have a play to do instead and they needed to give me a grade for doing something. (This was in the dark days before the TV show Glee, when such show choirs were not cool at all.)
When it came time for me to sing my first line at the prison, I sang it clearly and, I thought, pretty well. What I wasn’t prepared for was the response this well-sung line–well sung by a male, no less–would get from the ladies of the prison, for they gave off whoops and hollers and began applauding like I was Usher. When it came time to sing my next line, though, I was seized by nerves and my voice warbled like a pubescent Peter Brady. It killed all cred I had just built with the ladies in the audience. There was almost an audible sound of disappointment. Two days later, with that memory still fixed in my head, I did the exact same thing in front of our congregation at church, only without the whoops and hollers in between. It’s that memory that I’ve tried to live down in all future church performances.
These days, I’m old hat at singing in church and have even turned my singing talents back to the stage, with several professional productions at the Greenbrier Valley Theatre, some of which have been musicals, one of which was an opera. I tend not to choke when it comes to singing.
This past Sunday night, at 7 p.m., the cantata service began. Instead of being in the choir loft with the rest of the choir, Jeff had asked me to start my narration from the back of the sanctuary, where I could walk down the aisle in darkness, creating an effect. I’d even memorized that particular narration, since I wouldn’t have any light to see my words by (though the words were, thankfully, printed on the overhead projected image of the cantata DVD just for backup). The cantata started, I said my words flawlessly and headed up into the loft to join the choir for the first song. I didn’t think I felt nervous, but I must have been for my mouth had gone very dry. I had some water there in the choir-loft, though, so it would just be a matter of finding time to sneak some. Didn’t find any after the first song, because I had to step down to narrate again and then step right back up to start singing with the choir almost immediately. The second number was a gospel-themed title song, God Coming Down. It’s probably the most challenging song of the whole cantata because it’s very fast and with a lot of ad-libbing on the part of the soloist, but with lots of business for the choir as well. Think big black gospel choir (only one of which was actually black, and that wasn’t the soloist) and you have a decent picture. The song builds to a huge ending that is designed to leave the audience cheering. And we followed that design, because they were indeed cheering. The song doesn’t actually end there, though. After the audience has clapped a bit, the music is supposed to start back with a reprise of the chorus–only even faster than before and with the lyrics starting almost immediately.
This is where I made my mistake.
I tried to sneak some water during the applause, knowing I had another narration to do shortly. So I brought my water bottle up, thinking the sound guys were going to let the applause go for a bit before starting the reprise. I was wrong. They let the DVD run on for its 4 second pause, enough time for me to get water into my mouth, then the drum beats kicked in and the choir started singing. In my haste to swallow and start singing again, I inhaled a little bit of water. And suddenly, my vocal cords seized up I couldn’t sing anymore.
I tried to put a game face on and continued mouthing the words to the song, but every time I tried to sing any of them the sounds came out sounding more like Gollum, from Lord of the Rings, than me. My high range was shot, my low range was shot and the middle range area was really really clunky. I tried to cough the water out, but this seemed to make things sound worse somehow. Then the song was over and it was time to go narrate again. It sounded awful, though I managed to get all the words out more-or-less. Great, now I couldn’t sing or speak and my solo was a mere four songs away.
Throughout the next three pieces, I continued to try and clear my throat, occasionally sipping more water to try and remove whatever crud was on the vocal cords, or just sooth them from the punishment they had endured. Didn’t seem to be helping. I then tried to relax and just mouth the words, saving what little voice I had. When I gave it a few test notes, though, it still sounded terrible. I couldn’t even sing falsetto to hit the higher notes, cause that sounded worse than full voice.
My speaking voice cleared up a little bit, but it was certainly not what I’d call good and my ability to match the energy of Travis Cottrell’s intent was waning.
How was I going to get through my solo? It was going to be a train wreck and there was not much I could do about it. Was it possible to somehow communicate with Jeff using sign language that I wasn’t going to be able to sing? Or was it wise to just go up to him before my song and tell him that? Could he pinch hit for me?
I did the narration for the song right before mine, a duet, half of which was sung by my friend Brian and the other by a lady named Jane. I knew they would knock it out of the park and it was one of my favorite moments of the whole cantata. I couldn’t even enjoy it, though, because every note brought me closer to the disaster that would be my song. Half the crowd had heard me sing it that morning. They knew what it was supposed to sound like and I was not about to deliver that.
I began praying–which I should have been doing all along–and just asking God to clear my voice. I figured there was no easy way out of this mess, so I was going to have to try my best and croak it on out, hoping that at least the message of the lyrics would be heard even if they weren’t pretty. And the notes remained very ugly indeed during the choir parts of Brian and Jane’s song. My favorite tenor note in the entire cantata was in there, too, and I couldn’t hit it at all.
When the song ended, I walked down the steps of the choir loft and toward the stage. My mind was spinning. Should I say something beforehand? Should I explain that I’d choked on water during what was practically a spit-take in Johnny’s song? Should I warn the audience that they were about to hear something that was going to sound like Clarence “Frogman” Carter’s younger less-talented brother “Tadpole” Clem, after being punched in the throat? Should I apologize? Or, should I see how it turned out, and apologize only if it was the horror show I suspected it was going to be? Or, and here’s a thought, should I just have faith?
As I stepped onto the stage, Brian was there holding the microphone for me. As he passed it to me, I whispered, “Pray for me,” and gave him as serious an expression as I could. He nodded and said “Will do.”
I read the long narration before my song. My speaking voice sounded about 70 percent of good to my ears. I was, oddly, not nervous at all about singing in front of so many people. I was nervous that the mechanics of it would work at all and that was more then enough nervousness to deal with.
The music began to play and the moment arrived… “O Bethlehem,” I began. And it worked! The voice was working! “So small and weak,” I continued in, essentially, the same note range. The voice worked. “Open your arms. Receive your king. Redemption cries. Salvation breathes. O, bless the Lord.” My voice was working for all of it. I would certainly not call it 100 percent, but it was passable–it was passable! In my head, I thanked God and continued on through my first verse. The voice worked.
Once the chorus began, though, the notes became higher and I could feel my control breaking down again. Fortunately, the choir also sang on the chorus, so I just lowered the microphone and let them do the heavy-lifting as I tried to sing along. I could feel and hear, though, that what I was doing wasn’t working. The higher range was still very very sketchy, but at least I wasn’t on mic singing those sketchy notes. I just mouthed the words until the next verse began, which dropped me back into the passable range. From what I could tell in the moment, and what I was able to confirm once I returned to the choir loft, any notes above or below the range of those sung in the verses of my song did not work well coming out of my mouth. All the notes of my verses–the ones the audience could hear me singing solo–worked. It was like my voice was temporarily damaged in such a way that I was still able to sing my song. And if this is any sort of evidence of a miracle–which I contend it is, cause that’s what it felt like–it means that I was assigned a song that fit the exact range I would need to have in the moments of the verses, while everything else was problematic at best. Whatever the case, I praised god in mind and song.
The second chorus I did again off mic, resting my voice because I knew the third verse was supposed to be as piano as it gets, leading to the forte final chorus. The voice worked in the much quieter tones, too. It sounded a little smokey, but was respectable. In the final chorus, I was so grateful to have gotten through it all that I just dropped the mic to my side and gave it my all to sing the chorus. It was not great, but it was also not amplified.
On my way back to my seat, Brian gave me a thumbs up and I mouthed “thank you,” back. After the cantata had ended, I told Brian about my choking spit-take and the damage it had wrought. He explained that he’d heard me sound a bit off in my narration and realized something bad was happening with my voice. When he’d returned to the choir loft after my request for prayer, he’d rallied the other tenors near him to join, so I had at least three people praying for me.
“I’m calling it a Christmas miracle,” I said.
Copyright © 1997-2013 Eric Fritzius
In addition to eating like an asshole, as is my Austin tradition, I also had the traditional visit to Austin Books & Comics, my favorite comic shop in the whole wide world. If you can think of a graphic novel or comic book trade paperback collection, chances are quite high that Austin Books & Comics will have multiple copies of it in stock. They also have a huge supply of statues, toys and figurines to keep your inner geek happy for decades.
While there I happened to spy a set of vinyl figurines cast in the shape of cartoonist Evan Dorkin’s most famous creation Milk & Cheese. For those unfamiliar with Milk & Cheese, they’re dairy products gone bad, known for their hatred of most things that aren’t alcohol, mindless violence or the late TV show A Current Affair. (They once engaged in a successful two man war on drugs because they were tired of the anti-drug commercials interrupting their viewing of A Current Affair.) I love the characters and own every one of their comics, most of which are #1 issues. I also have both the flat illustrated Milk & Cheese refrigerator magnet set, but also the now rare three dimensional porcelain magnet produced by Graffiti Designs in the late 1990s. (Oooooh, ahhhhh.) Until that moment, though, I’d only seen pictures of the Milk & Cheese figures, as they were produced several years ago and in limited supply. Another reason I’d never seen them in person is because they cost around $70 at the minimum when they were first released and I was still smarting over the cost of the porcelain fridge magnet. Because of this, I had no idea how huge the figures are. The photos I’d seen didn’t really give any sense of scale, so I’d assumed that Milk was probably smaller than the typical smallish carton of milk and Cheese a smallish wedge of cheddar. The figures were easily twice the size I had expected, though. They came packaged in a huge foot and a half long box decorated with Milk & Cheese comic strips. The display of the figs in the shop listed them for the usual $70, so I still wasn’t going to bite. However, on further exploration into the toy section of the store, I saw that they had a endcap display of them that had the sets listed for $30 each. I figured they must be a former display model, or something had to be wrong with them to be at that low a price. But when I asked a clerk he said that the figs were dairy products reduced for quick sale because the store had bought too many sets. So I bought a set for $30.
And they’re completely awesome!
Inside their box, Milk & Cheese are nestled securely inside a bagged, plastic vacuform insert along with their weapon accessories: a plastic broken gin bottle, a large plastic hammer, and a plastic stick with a plastic nail through it. I left everything in its place, didn’t even crack the seal on the plastic bag and put it all back in the box. For a bit I considered shipping the box to myself in WV, saving me the trouble of packing such an enormous item in my check luggage. I also considered collapsing the box and packing the figs loose within my clothing. Then I changed my mind and instead packed the full box into my carry on gym bag since it was light enough that it wouldn’t be a hassle.
On Saturday, we headed to the airport, checked our check bag and proceeded thorough the TSA security line. We did the whole remove all metal and run your carry on through the x-ray machine bit. I made it through the security screening before the bags and was able to look back at the x-ray display screens while I put on my shoes. On the screen was what looked like my satchel, at least from the snake nest of media cables I could see. I was sure this would take them a few moments to suss out. But it was actually the gym bag that they’d paused the conveyor belt to examine in depth. The tech stared at the x-ray. Then stared some more. Finally, he called one of the TSA officers over and said something to her before starting the belt again. My bags came rolling out.
“Whose bag is this?” the TSA lady asked pointing to the satchel.
“That’s mine,” I said.
“This is your bag?” she asked.
“Sir, do you have any glass products packed in here?”
“Not that I’m aware of,” I said.
Then the TSA agent seemed to look at the satchel for a moment, perhaps listening to someone speaking to her in an earpiece, for she then said, “No, this isn’t the bag.” She slid the satchel to me in its plastic tray. Then she pulled the tray containing my gym bag close and said, “Whose bag is this?”
“That’s mine,” I said again.
“This is your bag?” she asked again.
“Sir, do you have any glass products packed in here?”
“Not that I’m aware of,” I said again. Did I, though? We had been to a Penzeys Spice store and had loaded up on little glass jars of curry powder and peppercorns and what not. But I’d definitely packed those in the check bag.
“You don’t have any glass products?” she asked again, now with suspicion.
Had I stuttered?
“Not that I’m aware of,” I repeated.
Another pause and perhaps another listen to a voice in an earpiece.
“Sir, do you have any figurines in here?”
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, there are two.”
“May I search the bag?”
“Go right ahead.”
The TSA lady unzipped my gym bag and there at the top was the long Milk & Cheese box. She removed it from the bag, nosed around in the clothing that had surrounded it, found nothing made of glass, figurine or otherwise, and then began the process of opening the Milk & Cheese box itself.
“Um, technically I guess there is kind of a bottle in there,” I said. “But it’s a fake plastic gin bottle,” I added. I didn’t mention that the fake plastic gin bottle was sculpted to appear broken, nor did I mention the fake plastic stick with the fake plastic nail through it, nor that their accessories were supposed to represent weapons. By then she had the box open and had pulled out the plastic bag-covered vacuform insert with Cheese and Milk (that’s the order they’re packed in) staring up at her baring expressions of malice on their little Dorkiny faces, their hands clinched in fists of dairy fury. The TSA lady blinked down at them for a few seconds as though what she was seeing didn’t compute. At least they’re not flipping her off like my Milk & Cheese magnet, I thought. Then she smiled and said, “Oh, it’s a game!”
“Actually it’s– Uh, yes, it’s a game,” I said.
She took the insert over to the x-ray tech to show him “the game.” He seemed to approve, or at least not deny. She then repackaged my toys and zipped up the bag, after which I gathered my possessions and made my way over to where my wife was standing, shaking her head.
“Apparently Milk & Cheese caused some problems with the TSA,” I said.
“Naturally,” the wife said.
Copyright © 2012 Eric Fritzius
The Talkin’ Selling the House, Gates of Hell, Poo Tank Maintenance, Humiliations and General Grossness, Big Ol’ Grin of Satisfaction, Bad Dog Blues (a truly horrifying Horribly True Tale)
One of the most humiliating experiences I can imagine is to take a huge dump in the front yard and then invite someone over to have a look at it. It’s just not something that is ever done. Even more humiliating and nonsensical, though, would be to then ask them to dispose of it for you. As unbelievable a scenario as this is, it’s exactly what I did this week, only several thousand times worse. For this week, you see, was the week we had the septic tank emptied. Yessir.
We’re about to move, you see, and, as part of our process of readying our house to hit the market, we’ve been going down the list of home improvement projects we’ve intended to accomplish for four years and getting to some of the ones left there. So we finally had the automatic garage door opener on my side of the garage replaced, redid the hall bathroom, regrouted part of the tub surround in the master bath tub, etc. And, as we went down the list, some items were moved further down it in priority—such as actually replacing the tub in the hall bathroom, which we avoided by rationalizing that we didn’t know what kind of tub the new owners might want there, so why not let them do it? Other items were added to the list out of the blue.
“We should call someone to come clean out the septic tank,” the wife said over breakfast. I’d already been thinking about that, oddly enough—not because of breakfast but because a cleaning of the poo tank was probably due. According to the paperwork we’d received with the house, the last time it had been emptied was a few months before we bought the place. So you figure once every 3-5 years being the norm for emptying a poo tank (though some argue against emptying it at all), it was about time. The thing is, I’ve never lived in a place with a septic system before and we were kind of mystified as to where the tank itself was located, and had no idea where its lid could be found. We deduced it was in the front yard somewhere, because that was the direction our poo pipe ran from beneath our house, but we were not at all sure where the tank was buried. Our front yard has a lot of trees, so it seemed like it would have to be located in between some of them, but the trees were spaced fairly close together. If you were going to bury a 1000 gallon tank, it would have to be somewhere between the trees, we reasoned.
We’d had cause to speak with the health department, a few months previous, as we’d been trying to determine when our well had originally been dug. While I had them on the line, I’d asked if they had records of the septic tank’s installation and, hopefully, location. They faxed over two diagrams, one for the proposed tank and drainage field location and one for the inspected tank and drainage field location. They showed two different locations for the tank, but I figured the inspected one was the correct one. It put the tank somewhere outside my office window, with the drainage field further down into the yard. I didn’t do any digging to check, but figured that would be where I’d have to direct any poo removal specialists when that day came.
And now it had.
The poo removal specialists arrived around midday and were soon awash in the oh-so-vicious snarls of my two dogs Sadie and Moose (collectively known as Sadiemoose). While the dogs barked and slavered from behind glass, I went out to meet the poo removal specialists carrying with me the aforementioned poo tank diagram.
“Has it been backing up on you at all?” Terrance the poo tank man asked.
“No, not at all,” I said. “We just want to get it cleared before we sell it.”
Terrance and his poo tank assistant, Matthew, then poked the ground with a pointy metal pole for a while, making their way from the center of the yard over to the area in front of my office window that I’d suggested was where they start. The poking of the lawn continued, with occasional thunks as the pole struck either concrete or rock. Several minutes passed this way with no real consensus as to where digging should commence. Finally, Terrance took something plastic and orange from his pocket and handed it to me.
“Could you go inside and flush this twice?” he said. I looked at the plastic device. It was about the size of a flattened golf ball, but had a slot along one side within which I could see a small metal disc, about the size of a thick watch battery. It turned out to be a tracking device. I figured he must have a whole box of them back in the truck and that they must be cheap if you could go flushing them willy nilly. By “flush this twice” I knew he meant, flush the tracker down, then flush the toilet again to send it on through. This I did and when I came back Terrance produced what looked like a metal detector handle minus the pole and detector disc. He aimed it at the ground until he found where it seemed to be the loudest, which was beside one of the four pine trees planted in front of our house, this one just outside my office window. They stabbed the pole down once more and struck something solid.
Digging began, hampered a bit by the limbs of the tree.
“That tree’s in a bad location,” Terrance said. His point was that with the tree was as close to the tank as it seemed to be, eventually there would be root problems. They might not make it through the concrete tank, but they could certainly bore into the septic pipe leading into the tank and gum up the works—that is, if they hadn’t already. He recommended the tree be taken out.
Within 20 minutes a foot and a half deep pit was dug out and the upper surface of a section of the concrete poo tank exposed. There was a rectangular concrete plug in the top of the tank with a rebar hook embedded in it. They looped some chain through that and lifted the whole thing off. And there before us were exposed the gates of hell itself.
I will not go into detail as to what the gates of hell look like in this case, but I will say that the gates were quite FULL. To the brim even. I will also not describe the smell, which you already have a pretty good idea about I’m sure. What I will say is that having four years-worth of one’s leavings exposed to strangers is a very embarrassing experience even if it is the job of said strangers to see such leavings on a regular basis. I wanted to apologize and issue denials and run away all at the same time. But there was just no denying what we were all looking at and smelling, nor was there any denying exactly who had produced a goodly portion of it.
“Looks like we got here just in time,” Terrance said. Then he and his poo tank assistant went back to their poo truck and soon poo hoses were hooked up and stretched across the yard and into the gates of hell. The powerful poo pumps on the poo truck soon began to make quick work of their 1000 gallons worth of burden. And Terrance stood by with a giant poo rake to help the process along. He seemed pretty skilled with that rake, and was able to use it to retrieve his orange radio tracker, which he tossed to Matthew, who put it in a pocket. And with that I suppressed a shudder at the realization of how many poo tanks that thing had probably seen in the past and how little cleaning it was likely to have had before being handed to me earlier.
“I been doin this a couple days,” Terrance later said with a grin. “Thirty five years, actually,” he added.
“What’s the strangest thing you’ve pulled out of one of these?” I asked.
“A dead body,” he said. Then he grinned again and said “Not really.” But he did say that when he was first starting out, about the same age as Matthew, he was working on pumping out the septic tank of a man and wife whose septic system had become clogged. The man of the house asked him what had been causing the clog and young Terrance told him “Condoms.”
“What?” the man said.
“Condoms. You know, rubbers?”
The man of the house said that this was not possible. He and his wife didn’t use condoms.
“Well, maybe it’s from house guests,” young Terrance reportedly had offered.
No. This wasn’t likely either.
“Well, maybe it was the people who owned the place before you,” Terrance said.
And at this the man of the house said, “I built the house.” The man then excused himself, went inside and there shortly followed a great deal of angry shouting between the happy couple. Terrance’s boss came running up at the sound of the screaming argument from within the house and asked Terrance what he’d said to cause it. Terrance told him. “Boy, don’t you ever tell the customer what’s in the tank!” the boss said.
I laughed at this story, but within mere minutes we were to discover something of a different brand of disturbing within my own poo tank. As the level of substance decreased in the tank, a PVC pipe with a T joint on the end was exposed. This is the end of the pipe that ran from our plumbing beneath the house. Unfortunately, as the level finally reached the bottom of the tank, we could see a second section of T-capped pipe lying in the muck at an odd angle, its other end very much broken.
“Ohhhhh,” Terrance said when he saw it. “If that’s what I think it is then you’re in for a world of shit.”
“What?” I said.
Terrance asked for a flashlight, then got down on hands and knees and lowered his head into the gates of hell for a look around, specifically toward the easterly end of the tank which extended several feet beneath the ground. When he came back up he looked grim. It seems that the piece of broken pipe was supposed to reside in the other end of the tank, as it was a part of the system that connected to the drainage field. The way a septic tank works is that everything enters the tank where solids sink and paper and sludge float. The solids are digested by microbes from the monthly Rid-X treatments we send down. The liquids are able to bleed off into the drainage field, which are a series of pipes running down into the yard that allows for natural filtration of the water. According to Terrance, though, the broken pipe was preventing this system from working naturally and it had all just been building up in the tank itself.
I shook my head in annoyance at this, but was not entirely surprised. After all, it’s not like anything around here is ever going to be simple or go to plan. No, it’s going to take three times as long, cost three times as much and drive me nigh unto madness before the end of it. At least this time, though, I had two guys who were willing to return, venture into the gates of hell and fix our poo pipes. We’d be able to include their work in our packet of Cool Things We Did to Make the House a More Attractive Purchase folder for prospective buyers.
The poo tank assistant fished the broken pipe out of the poo tank with the poo rake and then dumped it in the yard. Terrance then picked it up and used it as a visual aid to explain the work that would need to be done, including replacing that thin chunk of pipe with much thicker modern PVC that wouldn’t break. The work would involve a lot of digging—including possibly digging up the offending and dangerous tree, if we liked—to expose the other lid to the poo tank where the bulk of the work would need to be done. Until the work was done, the septic system would be inoperative, or at the very least inefficient, and would just fill up to the gates of hell once again. It would take a while, but far sooner than if the drainage field was operational.
I agreed to it and soon the men were plugging the poo tank with its concrete lid again and winding their poo hoses back onto their poo truck, promising to return at the crack of dawn the following day. They left.
I went back in the house and was greeted by our dogs, who were very interested in getting outside to potty and explore and see what smells these strangers had left behind. Oh, you’ll smell some smells, I thought. I opened the back door and out they ran.
After several minutes, I began to wonder why the dogs had not returned to the back door. They’re usually only good for a couple of squirts in the yard and then they’re back wanting to be let in. Oh, they’re probably around front checking out the smelly hole in the ground, I reasoned. So I stepped out onto the front porch where I could see them over by the hole. I clapped my hands to call them and they came running. Moose trotted up the steps first, happy to see his “pa” as always. Then Sadie rounded the edge of the porch, a huge smile on her doggy face, and I was afforded a horrifying sight nearly as bad as the gates of hell earlier. Sadie’s neck and shoulders were coated in something black. To the untrained eye, it might have appeared to be very black mud. But to my trained eye and nose, I knew it to be raw sewage.
Where did she… ? How did she…? What the f…?!
And even as I watched, she gave me my answer by dashing back to the poo tank pit where I witnessed her bend over and roll gleefully onto the sewage-coated piece of broken pipe that was still laying in the grass above the pit.
“LEAVE IT!!!!” I screamed. “YOU! LEAVE! IT!!!”
Sadie looked up through a haze of filth and flashed a big ol’ grin of satisfaction. This was by far the greatest and best stinky thing she’d ever found to roll in and she was in stank heaven.
Cursing, I threw open the front door and yelled at Moose to get in the house. Then I snatched up my phone and texted “YOUR DAUGHTER JUST ROLLED IN SEWAGE!!!” to my wife. Then I then began preparations to give that damn dog the queen mother of all baths.
But which bathroom to use? Normally we bath the dogs in the big tub in the master bathroom. But we’d not yet sealed the new grout we’d freshly put in the master bath tub surround. I could bath her in the hall bathtub, but did I really want to chance this dog shaking wet sewage all over the freshly painted walls? Onto the good towels? I finally opted for the bathroom with the most room and the most tile and went with the master.
Sadie, of course, knows that we don’t dress in normal clothes for bath time, and she never comes to a bath willingly. So we’ve learned that if we want to bathe her without so much hassle, we have to dress as per normal, calmly walk up and lift her 80 pound butt, carry her to the tub and only then strip down to skivvies. However, picking her up now meant coming into contact with sewage and I didn’t really have any normal clothes I wanted to sacrifice. So I put on my painting shorts and a t-shirt I didn’t care about. This didn’t fool Sadie. One look at me and she went into red-alert mode, dropping her front down to the deck and giving me a warning woof. And any move I made toward her sent her skittering away. I opened the back door and ordered her into the house, determined to get her into closed quarters where her running range was limited. This was very dangerous, I knew, because there was carpet in the house and she was just as likely to decide to roll on it in her flight from me as anything. But I was able to corner her on the parquet floor of the kitchen and eventually reason with her until she let her guard down enough for me to slip my arms under her chest and lift her.
I held my breath as I carried Sadie back toward our bedroom, but half way there I had to take a breath. Oh, it was awful. I felt my throat tighten, suppressing a gag. You never consider when you use the bathroom that you’ll ever see, let alone touch that waste again, but here I was carrying a dog coated in it. And I was quite certain that if I dwelled on that fact long enough, I would indeed throw up. Instead, I tried to put it all out of my mind and just concentrate on putting feet in front of the other all the way to the bathroom.
I lowered Sadie into the tub and set about spraying her off with the shower hose. I avoided her head, though, because that’s usually the trigger that makes her shake and the longer we could avoid that the better for the surrounding room. Pulling the shower curtain as far closed as I could, I then sprayed it off too then growled loudly at her when she did shake. Dots of dark water struck the shower surround and dripped down. Ewww. Unfortunately, in my haste to get things ready I neglected to actually bring doggie shampoo into the bathroom. What I had brought was doggie conditioner. I couldn’t leave her there to go look for any shampoo, either, or she’d be out of the tub and dripping diluted sewage around the house for sure. So I grabbed the next best thing, a bottle of Head & Shoulders, and started pouring it on her. I gave the bath extra attention to detail and spent a lot of time scrubbing her face, neck and shoulders. Then I rinsed her off and, since I’d brought it in, poured on some conditioner. Finally, I took a sniff of her neck to see if the sewage was gone. It took my nose a few seconds to process it, but it seemed like the smell was gone. I gave her some extra rinsing to make sure, then toweled her off with three different towels—all of which were popped into a hot washing machine before the dog could finish her triumphant post-shower victory prance around the house.
This accomplished, I cleaned up the bathroom, washed all the sewage drops away and then had a shower myself using the same H&S technique as with Sadie. After I too was dry, I grabbed one of our industrial strength contractor’s trash bags and went outside to deal with the poo pipe. I managed to get it into the bag without actually touching it, then sealed it inside the trash can.
It took a few hours before I risked letting Sadie out again and even then I watched her every move and called her back every time she tried to head around to the front of the house. I had dispatched the pipe, but who knew what sort of drippings she could sniff out and roll in. I only hoped the following day’s adventure would prove fruitful and far less disgusting.
I slept very poorly. I kept having mini panic attacks that once the septic guys dug up the other side of the tank they would find something even more horribly and expensively wrong. What if the reason the pipe had broken within the tank was because that whole end of the tank had collapsed? That would suck.
At the ass crack of dawn, I finally arose to await the arrival of Terrance and his assistant. They’d said they would roll in around 7:30. I made extra coffee in case they needed some and commenced to wait. While I did, it began to snow. We’d had nary a flake since mid-November, which I’ve attributed to the fact that I’d had my snow tires installed in mid-November. But down the flakes were coming now. I wondered if it would mean a halt to the project for the day.
Around 8:30, Terrance and his assistant arrived driving a different truck from the previous day. This one was a smaller and with a flat black metal bed in the back upon which was mounted a bright and shiny new portajohn pump. Hitched to the back of the truck, though, was a long trailer on which was secured a medium sized backhoe. Terrance unloaded it and soon its treads were rolling up my driveway and then across the yard to the septic dig site.
As they set up, I told Terrance the story of Sadie rolling on the pipe. They agreed it was an awful experience, but I know it was far from the worst septic-based thing that had happened to them, so I doubted if they felt any actual sympathy.
With a bit of digging from the backhoe’s scoop, a new hole was opened a few feet to the right from the previous one. Some fine tune digging with a hand shovel later and the tank’s other lid was exposed. This time they hooked the chain for it across the backhoe’s shovel and lifted it off. Inside was a deep dark and relatively empty space, save for some liquid in the bottom. Terrance borrowed my flashlight again and poked his head into the tank to have a look around. He explained that he needed to see which direction the pipe leading out to the drainage field was headed. The interior portion of that pipe was the broken one that Sadie had rolled on, which is why he had to look inside the tank to see where it had been connected before the break. It seemed to be at the southern end of the tank, so that’s where they next began to dig to expose the pipe leading into the yard. As expected, this pipe was also broken and partially collapsed. He said this was likely due to the whole tank settling at some point and sheering off the pipe on the outside, which led to the breaking of the interior part of the pipe as well. It probably still worked to some degree, but not at prime efficiency.
Within half an hour, Terrance and his assistant had dug out around the pipe, sawed through it below the break, installed a new section of thick PVC pipe that ran from within the tank, through the tank wall and connected to the drainage field pipe. We were now back in business.
“Wait about two weeks then pour a whole box of Rid-X down the toilet,” Terrance advised. Then he added, “You still want that tree pulled up?” I explained that the wife did not want the tree removed up at all, but had agreed to it on the grounds that within a couple of months this would no longer be our house and we would not have to be concerned with whether there was a tree imbalance in front of it. Terrance’s assistant hooked their chain around the middle of the tree, the other end to the backhoe and with a smooth application of reverse they pulled it right out of the ground, roots and all. Then it was just a matter of recovering both sides of the freshly repaired tank and smoothing the mud back down in a mostly level fashion. It doesn’t look too bad. Not nearly as bad as the wife expected. The tree itself I sawed all the limbs from and will shortly carve it up for firewood with my chainsaw. I’ll plant grass over the place where it had grown and hopefully by the time the place sells we’ll have something of a yard over there again.
And the next time anyone opens the gates of hell to see my leavings, I won’t have to be there to see it.
Copyright © 2012 Eric Fritzius
Another home improvement project horribly true tale has been thrust upon me. However, I just don’t have the energy to follow this rabbit down the hole and attempt to chronicle it. The last such chase did not end nearly as dramatically as I imagine anyone would have wanted. Instead, you guys can make up your own awful adventure based on the photo below.
Optionally, here are some elements you may choose to incorporate:
There was an incident with a botched front door deadbolt installation for which I was in no way responsible–though I would have, in all likelihood, botched it just as badly had I been there to assist;
the purchase of a replacement door was subsequently required;
we’ve never done a door installation of this magnitude before;
turns out you can’t just replace a steel front door without replacing the jamb and everything, so we’d have to buy a pre-hung door and remove the old one to put it in;
also turns out no one in our area sells a pre-hung steel door set big enough to fit our doorway that doesn’t also look like sparkly wet crap;
a two hour road trip to another town to fetch one that didn’t look like sparkly wet crap was then required;
upon return with the door, it was discovered that the screws for attaching said new door were apparently made of Chinese pot-metal and were of SPECTACULARLY SHITTY QUALITY, for two of them sheered off during installation;
the decorative window in the door was installed improperly at the factory and is, in fact, not precisely parallel to the paneling below it by around an 8th of an inch, a fact that we did not discover until the door was well and truly in place;
said door was manufactured by the Masonite Corporation, who I invite, along with the National Fenestration Rating Council that certified the door, to eat a bag of dicks;
the deadbolt, once installed, turned out to be equally shitty to the quality of the screws and its mechanism did not stand up to even the slightest of pressure in turning the deadbolt, which resulted in a bent and no doubt Chinese pot-metal shaft within it, as well as its subsequent removal and return to the local retailer;
a new, more expensive deadbolt was purchased;
said new deadbolt was returned due to the fact that its purchaser (me) managed to get one with the wrong finish to match the door handle;
said new new deadbolt with the correct finish had to then be returned because its purchaser (me, again) managed to buy one with a keyhole on each side rather than one with a keyhole on the outside and a turning latch on the inside;
the returns clerk at our local Lowes failed to disagree with me when I pointed out to her that clearly I was a moron;
the molding that had previously surrounded the old door is now null and void because the new door jamb does not sit as far in as the old one did, so a gap revealing the drywall beneath is clearly visible on three sides of the door;
as of this writing the door is still not fully reinstalled, though it is at least secured in place and has multiple locks present.
Copyright © 2011 Eric Fritzius
This past weekend, I was enjoying some Saturday evening TV with the glow of a beer still about me when our dogs began barking oddly at the back door. Through the glass of the door, I could see one of our cats, D.J. Kitty, sitting on the deck railing. Then the dogs paused in their barking to sniff at the bottom of the door. Immediately, they began whining loudly to get out. I had no clue what was going on, but I got up and opened the door and they nearly turned an ankle trying to get off the back deck and run into the night. Only after they were gone did I take a good breath and picked up the strong odor of skunk.
“Ohhhh shit!” I said.
I could just imagine those dogs, who love to chase after little critters like squirrels and cats, running headlong into a skunk and finding themselves with a face full of spray. It would be horrible and I would have to spend the rest of the knight scrubbing them. Moose is smaller, granted, but his fur is very thick. And Sadie, while thinner of fur has more of it, and fluffy.
The dogs had already run around the corner of the house and were presumably in the driveway. Frantically I began shouting for them to come back while also clapping my hands as loudly as I could. The clapping part is their signal that Pa Means Business and Shits Are Gonna Break Bad if They Don’t Head Back This Very Second. True to their training, they listened and came running back.
“Get in the house!”
Moose ran right in, but Sadie paused at the edge of the yard.
“GET IN THE HOUSE!!!” I shouted. She whined and cast a glance toward the back corner our home’s exterior, as though weighing how much trouble she would be willing to incur by running that way to check for skunks.
“GET! IN! THE! EFFING! HOUSE!!!!!” I screamed. Only I didn’t scream “Effing.” My neighbors must adore me. Reluctantly, Sadie went in the house and I slammed the door after us, crisis averted.
Standing at my firmly shut back door, it was astounding to me how strong the skunk funk already was inside the house. The door had been open for less than 30 seconds, but it smelled an awful lot like skunk. It was so strong, in fact, that I wondered just how close to the house the skunk had been for it to smell so powerful. I could at least count my blessings, though, that the skunk hadn’t managed to spray one of the dogs or the…
I looked over at D.J. Kitty, who was munching food from his bowl atop a table in the kitchen. With fear and trepidation did I move over to the table. Double that and you’ll have my feelings about the prospect of leaning over to carefully sniff the cat.
Back when I worked for a public library, I once had to check in a book that had been steeped in what we believe was horse urine. And upon first sniffing that book, I realized to my horror that what I’d thought was merely mud was actually the bladder-based waste-product of a living creature. This is much the same gut reaction that hit me as I sniffed the cat. He didn’t smell exactly like skunk spray, but the cat was definitely covered in some sort of powerful, revolting, animal by-product concentrate. Again, it not exactly skunky, but in the ballpark. I couldn’t think of what else it could be and the skunk in the area was too much of a coincidence for it not to be skunk funk. My best guess was that the skunk odor we’re all familiar with is actually a combination of skunk-funk-concentrate and air.
D.J. hopped down from the table and our dogs took an immediate interest in sniffing him. I knew my nose wasn’t off. He was doused in something awful.
Somehow I had the presence of mind to go and shut the bedroom door. It would be hellish to have to sleep in a room that smelled of skunk and I knew my wife, with her acute sense of smell, would not be able to handle it. I then stripped off my shirt and went to catch the cat, who I hauled to the hall bathroom tub.
An episode of Mythbusters backed up the home remedy of a bath in tomato juice to cut skunk spray, but I didn’t have any at hand. So, instead, I soaked the cat in vet-shampoo and scrubbed him for ten minutes. After rinsing him off, I found he was definitely still stinky, but maybe a bit less so. He was also wet and cranky.
I texted the wife to warn her about the skunk. When she came home, she immediately wrinkled her nose upon walking into the house. I don’t think she was very happy about it, but it wasn’t as if I had let the cat in KNOWING he was coated in skunk spray, so she couldn’t really complain.
“He smells a little better now,” I offered.
The wife suggested we put the cat back outside regardless. He was way too rank to stay in the already stinky house.
“I know it’s probably a long shot,” she began, “but did you happen to close the bedroom door?”
“Yes, I did,” I said, proud of my forethought. She was equally delighted.
The bedroom had indeed remained blissfully free of skunk smell and we kept it closed off and the dogs locked inside of it throughout the night. Eventually, the dogs had to make stinky of their own and whined to go out at 5 in the morning. Upon entering the hallway with them, I was hit with the still potent smell of skunk. Waking up on my return to bed, the wife suggested we turn off the heat and open some windows in the rest of the house. Sure, it was a bit chilly outside, but we’d be pretty snug in the closed off bedroom. And by morning, the house nearly smelled normal. The cat, however, did not.
From the store, I purchased two of the biggest cans of tomato juice they had and took them home, prepared to give D.J. a proper tomato bath. One of the many troubles with giving a cat a tomato juice bath is that despite it being the standard suggestion for skunk spray remedy, no one ever tells you exactly how to accomplish it. Do I fill the bathtub with tomato juice? Do I pour it on his head? Do I need a wire bristle brush? Does he have to soak in it for half an hour? Should I heat it first? I didn’t know. I decided to go with a soak/pour combo to cover bases and I decided to do this in the kitchen sink. I’m not sure why I thought it would be easier than the bathtub, but it was a mistake all around.
Before seizing the cat, I mixed two different kinds of shampoo with half a giant can of tomato juice and stirred it up. (Mythbusters also said soap was good.) Then I put the stopper in the sink drain, put the cat in the sink, rinsed him with the sink’s spray hose and then held him with one hand while pouring the mixture over his back and head with the other. I began massaging it over him, trying to get the cat good and coated, but the soap mixed in was making him slippery. Thinking that he wasn’t coated enough, I then tried to pour the rest of the can of tomato juice over him, but I couldn’t get a good grip on the sides of the can with only one hand and had to awkwardly pull the can over by gripping its top edge, before tipping it over using my forearm and chest, and then pouring it onto the cat.
D.J. Kitty was not having a good time of it, but he didn’t squall too much and didn’t claw me. (Clawing me is what he saves for when I’m actively trying to feed him in the morning.) What he did do, though, was one of those patented Kitty-Full-Body-Shakes, sending blobs of soapy tomato goo flying in all directions. Quickly I realized my error of doing this in the kitchen. I also realized that the puny spray pressure of our sink hose would not be enough to cut the tomato mixture in any sort of ideal time period. Those thoughts, combined with the fact that D.J. suddenly decided he’d had enough and had begun clawing at the edges of the sink to escape, which became a two-hand job to prevent, made me certain that we needed to finish this bath in the bathtub.
I didn’t have a spare hand to grab for a towel, so I just pulled D.J. to my chest, keeping his claws away from my body, and ran with him to the hall bathroom, blobs of tomato falling to the carpet in a trail behind us.
The bathroom rinsing seemed far less traumatic for him, if no less messy. By the time we were done, it looked like a cat had exploded in there, from the cat-slung smears of tomato-soaked cat hair sticking to the sides of the tub. And while the tomato juice bath had cut the stench quite a bit, it had not taken it all, particularly around his face. I could have done another soak on him, but it wasn’t so bad that he really needed it. Let him keep a stank head for a few days, I thought. Maybe that would teach him a valuable lesson about which woodland animals he’s supposed to be hassling.
Copyright © 2011 Eric Fritzius
The Talkin’ I Am Just An Ordinary Guy, Burnin’ Down The House, Blues Part II: Still Burnin’ After All These Years (a frighteningly familiar churnin’ burnin’ Horribly True Tale)
In a Horribly True Tale I penned nearly ten years ago, I mused that perhaps I shouldn’t be allowed to be a home owner due to the occasional lapses in attention to detail I suffer from when it comes to major home appliances. Said lapses have previously included: leaving for work with a turkey carcass on the stove in the cast iron Dutch oven with the burner beneath it set to medium; and, in a separate incident, turning the wrong burner of the same stove onto high so that all of its heat was applied to a plastic spatula rather than to the tea kettle for which I’d intended it. However, all previous warning signs to the contrary, I am now a home owner and have been for well over two years without any major incidents. Oh, sure, we’ve had to make it a family policy that all tea kettles in the house must come equipped with lids that not only howl and whistle, but which also automatically close and cannot be left ajar, preventing me from burning up any more of them due to inattention. But that’s hardly anything to get excited about, right? Right?
Today seemed an average day. I woke, saw the wife off to work, made coffee, ate breakfast, walked our two dogs, annoyed our two cats, assembled a podcast, wrestled with the uploading of the podcast, discovered it was my treacherous firewall causing the FTP clog, fixed that, publicized the upload and then ate some lunch. I noted while digging in the refrigerator at lunch that we had an awful lot of raw green beans left over from our recent venture into the realm of summer time home-delivery of organic veggies. One bag of them had already gone bad, but we still had a giant plastic container that I’d spent the better part of an hour filling with beans I’d snapped myself which soon would go bad if they weren’t cooked. Wouldn’t hurt to make them for supper, I reasoned.
Around 2:30 I decided to head to the gym and to the grocery store. I was about to leave when my progress was interrupted by a 20 minute phone call from our insurance company. After taking care of that, I left the dogs and cats in the house and drove across town to the gym. There I had a semi-vigorous workout for 35 minutes or so, checked the bulletin board on the way out for any new cool happenings about town, ran into our friend Tarek in the parking lot and talked to him for a couple of minutes before leisurely driving over a few blocks to Kroger. There I strolled into the building through the exterior set of automatic doors, chose a shopping cart and then went through the interior set of automatic doors and began shopping for more produce. Something tickled in my mind at that thought, but I put it aside as I’d found some Asian pears that looked tasty, followed shortly by some avocados. A minute later, I was swinging my cart back toward the vegetables proper when my eyes fixed upon a bin of green beans and the tickling in my mind transformed into a shudder of horror.
What I’ve neglected to mention until this point in the narrative is that earlier in the day—more precisely, between the time I had decided to go to the gym and the time the insurance company had phoned—I’d put all of the green beans from the plastic container into the largest of our butt-ass expensive Pampered Chef pots (the very ones my wife had hosted a Pampered Chef party in order to get a high enough discount on them to justify their expense) and put them on the stove where I planned for them to simmer to perfection while I was out on errands. However, after giving them only a few minutes on the burner’s #2 setting, I’d gone back and turned the dial up to high so the beans would start to boil and get a head start on the cooking process. My plan had been to turn them back down to simmer after they hit a boil. And even as I’d turned the knob to high, I had thought to myself that I should be very careful to remember that I’d turned the beans to HIGH, because it would be a horrible tragedy if I were to run off to the gym with the beans on high and burned down the house as a result. Then the phone had rung and 20 minutes of retirement talk and Simple IRA explanation ensued, after which I had practically bolted from the house leaving all the animals trapped inside behind me. All of this flashed through my mind over the course of one second, there in the vegetable aisle of Kroger.
Abandoning my shopping cart where it stood, I hurled the peaches and avocadoes in the direction of their displays, already shifting my ass into proper hauling gear as I headed toward the automatic doors. I then nearly slammed into said doors, which failed to automatically open for me and played a loud klaxon alarm as punishment for my attempt to egress through them. Apparently once you got into Kroger, you could not get out via that door.
“OH, GODDAMMIT!” I screamed across the produce section. I didn’t have time to argue with the doors, though. I ran between the nearby service desk and the checkout lanes and then through the other set of automatic doors Kroger has deemed as their preferred exit.
In the parking lot, as I ran toward my car, I was already trying to determine the probability that my house and pets were now in flames. I’d only been gone for around 45 minutes, so I thought it unlikely that the house had ignited yet. Granted, many house fires start in mere seconds, but the one on the stove was at least contained within an expensive and high-quality stew pot, lid secured atop it, situated beneath a stainless steel oven hood. There had probably been enough time for the broth and water to have cooked off, leaving only the moisture in the beans to prevent actual combustion. If I could get home as quickly as possible, I might only have a smoky house and freaked out pets to deal with.
The problem with exiting the parking lot of Kroger in Princeton, WV, is that while there are three exits for the lot none of them are ideal for a quick departure. The easternmost exit is probably the least used and therefore the quickest, but it isn’t so much an exit as a connection to the speed-bump strewn shopping center next door. It also puts you at the furthest distance from the road leading to the highway I needed to take in order to get home, which was to the southwest. The most direct route to the highway, the westernmost exit, was no good either, though, because it always has heavy traffic pouring by it from the north and south, but with really shitty sight lines, making it extremely difficult to turn left there. I opted instead to take the northernmost exit, which has just as much traffic as the western exit, but with better sight lines and the notable advantage of having a chicken lane. Unfortunately, it’s also the exit that every slow-of-ass human being tries to use and they always turn left. Sure enough, as I arrived at that exit there were already two vehicles ahead of me, intent on turning left but unwilling to actually go when given clear opportunities to do so.
A momentary digression on the topic of going: I’ve been a licensed driver for over 23 years now and in that time I have come to the conclusion that ours would be a far better world if all drivers of all vehicle-equipped nations could find it in their hearts to simply go. This is not to say there is not a time and place for caution behind the wheel, but, for the vast majority of any driver’s time, going is the policy preferable to me, especially when I’m the guy behind the person who isn’t going or am otherwise in a circumstance where I am forced to rely upon them to go in order that I may also go. I fully realize that there are plenty of allegedly valid reasons as to why people do not go as they should, such as red lights, or the desire not to violate posted speed limits, or two lanes of busy cross traffic at 4 o’clock on a Friday afternoon. These excuses matter not one whit to me when it comes to my desire for other drivers to go. And regardless of whether or not the driver in question can go, I make my feelings known by screaming the word “GO!!!!” at full volume from the safety of the interior of my vehicle. It is the single word that I have screamed the most during my lifetime and it is my behavior to do so on any given average day. So imagine, if you will, the rending of vocal cords that occurred as I sat behind the two cars at this northernmost Kroger entrance/exit, with my house and pets going up in smoke in my imagination.
After nearly a minute of impotent screaming, the front car was able to escape from the parking lot, leaving behind the small, primer-colored pickup truck in front of me driven by a young woman whose aspect in her rear view mirror suggested her to be maybe 20 years old. Her passenger in the truck cab looked to be another similarly aged girl. In the bed of the truck was a teenaged boy wearing a ball-cap and looking mighty dissatisfied with his lot in life. This driver also refused to go. However, she not only refused to go in the long intervals of heavy traffic during which she could not go, but also during the two or three occasions when there were large enough gaps in the traffic in which she conceivably could have gone had she but the skill to do so. At least three minutes passed during which my mental image of my pets aflame because of this girl blocking my path caused my blood pressure to spike. I slammed my fists on the steering wheel and wailed “GOOOOOOO!!!!” Then, around the start of the fourth minute, both lanes of traffic magically cleared and the girl had no remaining obstacles to her path forward for a nearly a quarter mile in each direction. And yet there she sat, her head swiveling back and forth, regarding both of the clear lanes of non-traffic, her foot firmly on the brake. Never mind that her situational luck would not hold for very long and soon traffic signals would turn green and hellish road congestion would again be unleashed upon the land, she remained stationary as though she fully expected Doc Brown and the DeLorean to slam through the space-time continuum and cut her off. I laid on my horn, causing the kid in the back to jump, and again screamed “GOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!” The girl stomped the gas, then immediately stomped the brakes, causing the kid in the back to first fall forward and then suddenly backward, smacking his head into the back of the truck cab. He looked pissed, but didn’t actively climb out to come beat me about the face and neck, nor did he even make eye contact with me. He just rubbed his head while the driver moved forward not even an inch. I don’t know if she was trying to punish me for daring to impugn her driving ability or if she just couldn’t get it into first gear, but by the time she was able to move again the traffic flow had resumed before us and it was another half minute before enough of a gap opened up for her to escape—though not long enough for me to. A minute later, I caught a break and I floored it all the way to the westernmost traffic light where I managed to turn left in a narrow and perhaps unadvisable window of space. I then sped toward the next traffic light that led onto highway 460, but was forced to stop a good 200 yards from it when I saw the enormous line of cars that were waiting to turn left onto the highway there. I screamed and raged and pounded the steering wheel some more, all because I’ve found myself in similar lines at that light before and knew that it would be at least a ten minute wait to get out. People in huge lines at that like traditionally do not go, and drag ass in moving at all, allowing the light to cycle back to red before anyone can move more than two car lengths forward. The right-turn lane, however, was practically wide open and had a green arrow. I roared past the slow asses, turned right and then tore down the highway in search of the first police median turnaround I could find. There weren’t any, so it was a good two miles before I reached the next intersection where I was able to whip a U-turn and floor it back the way I’d come. The light near Kroger was kind to me, this time, and I zoomed perpendicular to the line of non-going slow-asses there who I’m pretty sure hadn’t moved an inch since I’d passed them a minute earlier
Down the highway I roared, easily doing 70 in a 55. My plan, if pulled over for speeding, was to inform the officer that he was welcome to give me as many tickets for speeding and reckless endangerment as he liked, but he was going to have to give them to me in the driveway of my potentially burning house because I wasn’t going to hang around.
The next four traffic lights were not kind. In fact, the first of them contained a stalled vehicle that was blocking one of the lanes—MY LANE!!!—further gumming up traffic. The color red, more commie slow-asses and Grampy Patrol members bedeviled me on my way through the next three lights, after which I finally arrived at the road leading to my neighborhood. I traversed its mile-long, serpentine length at breakneck speed, the lack of smoke above the trees providing me some hope.
As I reached my driveway, the house appeared intact and I could see no smoke through the windows. As I exited the car, however, I could definitely smell something odd in the air. I bounded around the back of the house and threw open the back door. Flames did not explode into my face, Backdraft style. And while the interior of my house was definitely smoky, it was not exactly floor-to-ceiling smoky.
Our youngest dog, Moose, was running through the kitchen looking very concerned. From the front dining room of the house I heard our other dog Sadie barking. Then they both whipped past me and out into fresh air.
I turned off the burner of the stove, the stench of charred beans coming from the pot atop the burner. The cooking surface around the pot was covered in a ring of brackish colored crust. There were scorched-on spill stains along the sides of the Pampered Chef pot, made when the liquid contents had boiled over. Its clear glass lid was tinted brown and sounded as if it were on the verge of exploding from the heat coursing through its metal frame. Through its now tinted surface I could see that the pot no longer contained any liquid and the formerly impressive pile of beans within were now basically a thin layer of charcoal around an inch in height from the bottom of the pot.
After I’d opened all the windows and doors in the house, it occurred to me that the one thing missing from all this was the blare of our smoke detector in the hallway immediately outside our bedroom. There was smoke in our bedroom, which would have had to have wafted past the detector on the way into the room, so I didn’t know what the detector’s excuse was for remaining silent. I poked its test button with a stick and it flared to life, spewing high pitched alarm beeps and then shouting “FIRE! FIRE!” followed by “WARNING! CARBON MONOXIDE DETECTED!” Turns out, this is just what it always does when the test button is pressed. Otherwise, this Kidde Smoke and Carbon Monoxide Detector appeared to be very late to the party.
The dogs watched as I hauled the pot of bean-char outside and set it on a patch of dirt. They looked more than a little worried, so I told them they were good dogs, gave them dog hugs and apologized profusely for leaving them in the house with a burning pot of beans. After giving the pot an hour to cool, I dumped the remains of the beans into the compost bin and washed out the pot. The interior bottom of it had lost much of its nonstick surface and is likely ruined. As pricey as the pot was, I’d rather buy a new one than a new house.
By the time the wife arrived home, several hours later, I’d put candles out in all the rooms and tried to make the place smell as good as it could under the circumstances. She, to say the least, was not happy about the beans or her Pampered Chef pot. Mostly, though, she was glad that the house and its residents were all okay. We joked to the dogs for the rest of the evening about how their Pa had tried to kill them and, likely, would again in the future.
Even with all the windows open, it took two days for most of the smoke smell to dissipate and now, several days later, we still get a whiff of it when opening up closets and cabinets that had since remained closed. The ghost of burned beans past.
Copyright © 2010 Eric Fritzius
The Talkin’ I Can’t Get into Things Without My Magic Keys of Satisfaction Blues (a horribly yet magically true tale)
I’ve had my Subaru Forester since February and have enjoyed it quite a bit—particularly its allowing-me-to-traverse-my-icy-hilly-blind-curve-filled-neighborhood-in-the-winter feature that my previous vehicle did not possess. It’s a nice roomy car that can haul lots of stuff, such as heavy, enormous dogs and is plenty comfy. It also came factory-equipped with an Oh Shit-handle above the driver’s side door, which is an innovation that gives me far more comfort than any unseen airbag ever could. One of the only drawbacks to my ownership of it, though, is that until recently I have only had one key for it.
When we purchased this previously-driven vehicle in February, we were given two key fobs and one actual key. We were told at the time that the previous owners of the car had not returned both of the keys, but were assured by our salesman—let’s call him Stan—that he would be in touch with the previous owners soon and they would return the second key within a very short period of time. Having two keys for our vehicles is pretty important in my family, as I’m married to a kind and wonderful lady who has been known on more than one occasion to lock herself out of her own vehicle. The two key fobs would certainly help in unlocking the car in such a time of need, but the wife doesn’t even carry her own fob, let alone be willing to carry mine. Hell, I only started carrying mine after a series of embarrassing incidents involving the Subaru’s tendency to blast the horn in alarm whenever the door is unlocked using the actual key alone. There is a way to tell it to stop doing that, but you have to tell it every single time and I can never remember the steps, so I just carry the fob.
Jump ahead to late April. We happened to be driving by the dealership, which prompted the wife to inquire if her key had ever arrived. It had not, so we stopped and I went in to ask Stan about it. I had to reintroduce myself and explain the lack of a second key thing. At the time, though, he was in the middle of a sale and asked if I could call him back about it some other time. He said was sure he had it somewhere.
Jump ahead to June. I never heard from Stan, nor did I call him back as requested, mostly because I sensed that there was no way he actually had my other key and that getting a new one would be the equivalent in difficulty to going on a magical quest akin to the Lord of the Rings. Eventually, though, the topic of the key came up again when I had to borrow the wife’s car to haul a larger amount of stuff than my car could handle and we again had to trade keys. I decided it was time to get this key quest straightened out.
I returned to the dealership one afternoon, found Stan, reintroduced myself and told him I was still in need of the second key. He wasn’t in the middle of a sale this time, but another salesperson had commandeered his office for a sale of their own, so he couldn’t get to his desk, where he assured me the key was located. He asked if I could return later in the day.
“Well, either today or tomorrow,” I offered.
It was at this point that Stan should have piped up to alert me to the fact that the following day was his day off and that he would not be there. Stan, however, is a salesman and therefore sends off salesguy vibes. They reminded me of the vibes I used to detect from a particularly weaselly ad sales guy I once used to work with in my radio days, whose nickname was, in fact, The Weasel. This is not to say that I think Stan is necessarily a weasel (NOD), but like many of his erminey ilk he defaults to behavior designed not to mess up a potential sale, such as never telling people things they might not want to hear like I’m going to be gone on my day off. Clearly, he preferred to instead have me return two days later pissed off. Come to think of it, that’s pretty weaselly behavior, so let’s put another checkmark on the Weasel Chart for Stan.
So, after returning on his day off to find Stan absent and his even more openly weasel-like fellow salesman unwilling to help me for fear of screwing up something Stan might conceivably have in the works, I returned again two days later. I was determined that while I would not be openly hostile, I would also do nothing to disguise my annoyance with everyone involved.
Through the window, I could see that Stan saw me coming and perhaps even noted my expression, for he immediately put down his slice of pizza and ran to riffle in his desk drawers before I could even open the door. Spouting apologies for not having begun this search weeks before, he began pulling fistfuls of key fobs out of the desk in his search, looked in all the drawers, looked in his filing cabinet, and made more nervous small talk. Failing to find any Subaru keys, he apologized again and then disappeared into the depths of this particular building of the dealership complex for a full ten minutes, leaving me to watch his more weaselly-looking fellow sales guy slink around in an attempt to look busy.
Eventually Stan returned to announce that he’d spoken with someone with technical skills and they were even then printing instructions on how to program a “new one” for me. These modern car keys sounded complicated.
Soon enough, another fellow came out, instructions in hand and he and Stan followed me out to my car. At the technician’s request, I handed him my keys and he had a seat behind my steering wheel. He was there for under a minute when he emerged, holding up my keys by the fob with one hand and a second fob in the other. The second fob was our extra fob that my wife had left in the car while driving it days before.
“Does this one work?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
“And yours works?” he asked, dangling my keys from their fob.
“Then why do you need another one?”
Inwardly I smiled.
“I don’t,” I said. “We already have two key fobs. What we don’t have are two actual keys.”
The technician looked confused for a moment. “You don’t have two keys?” he asked.
“Nope,” I said. “That’s why I’ve been coming in here for the past several days asking for a second key.”
Wow that was a massively satisfying thing to be able to say. In fact, it was worth all the hassle so far just to be able to say it in a perfectly pitched tone of calm, polite, righteous indignation.
The technician turned a cold eye in Stan’s direction then stalked off toward the building, wadding up his instruction pages and pitching them at the nearest trash can upon entry. Stan looked rather embarrassed, standing there in the illumination from my blazing self-satisfaction.
“I feel like a huge idiot,” he said.
I said not a word to dissuade him of this notion.
Stan leaped into action to right his wrong. He piled into a golf cart and asked me to follow him down to another of the buildings in the complex. I was then led on a merry chase from building to building, eventually just joining Stan in the golf cart to save time. At each stop, Stan was treated to having employee after employee explain that he was in the wrong department and would need to go talk to so and so over in such and such other department. Half an hour later I was still waiting for a key, but was at least standing in line in the correct department with the correct employee, who had only moments before sent Stan on yet another trek to locate a blank key for him to cut.
Again, the magical quest would have been easier. Turned out, though, mine was not yet completed.
Upon Stan’s return with the blank, he announced that he was going to head back up to his own building, since I didn’t really need him there for the rest of the process. At first I was tempted to explain to him that I’d already invested far more of my afternoon—nay, my MONTH—in this little venture, all of which was due to his inability to follow up on assurances he’d made to us four months prior, and that until I had a working key in my hand he was just going to have to suck it up and waste some of his time, in addition to wasting mine. I almost said that. However, I’d long since decided that I didn’t really like Stan very much, nor did I care to listen to any more of his uncomfortable attempts at small talk, which I sensed would almost certainly soon turn to sports, a topic in which I’m not only uninterested but also illiterate. I told him to begone and he vanished in a puff of weasel-tinged brimstone.
The guy with the key-cutter soon produced a replica key for me, but explained that it wouldn’t actually work with my car until they cast a few spells on the magic chip embedded in it. The wizard for this was located in one of the previous departments we’d visited, back up the hill. I climbed into my car and tested this new key in the ignition. As was foretold, only my original key would start my vehicle.
I made the journey back up the hill to what I believed to be the wizard’s lair, only to be told that the wizard in question, who actually worked next door, had been sent on a side-quest and would be back in a sec. They advised me to go wait in the sun by the wizard’s mystical garage bay. So I waited. And I waited. After ten minutes and half a sunburn, I went back inside to inquire if the wizard had been alerted to my presence.
“He’ll be back in just a minute, sir,” the man there said.
I returned to the garage to find that the sorcerer’s apprentice had appeared and was working on another car. He asked who I was waiting for. I told him the wizard’s name.
“Jimmy,” I said.
The apprentice nodded, but said that the Wizard Jimmy’s quest had involved taking a vehicle to one of the dealership’s other branches. He would, the apprentice assured me, be back. I did the math in my head, though, and knew that the branch in question was a good ten miles away. What choice did I have, though? I waited.
Eventually, the Wizard Jimmy did appear. The skin of his arms, baked dark by the blazing sun above, was marked with black and arcane symbols no doubt denoting his elevated status among his wizardy brethren. He was also the least weaselly person I’d met the entire day. I found him instantly likable even beyond the fact that he held the power to set me free from my now hour plus trial.
The Wizard Jimmy asked what wish he could grant me. I gave him both my magic key and my somewhat less magic key. He then asked me to search my heart to determine whether I truly only desired two keys, or if perhaps I might one day want more. For once his arcane arts were applied to them, no more keys could ever be produced. I told him I was true of heart in my desire for only the two. The Wizard Jimmy then produced a flat brown creature—his familiar, I’m sure—and inserted my keys into its orifices. It squeaked as he massaged the rows of scales upon its back. A few moments later, he removed my keys from it and passed them into my grateful hands with a hearty, “There you go, big guy.”
I climbed into my vehicle and found that both of the keys worked as promised. I waved to the wizard and then sped from the parking lot, not even bothering to return to the office of the wizard’s supervisor for fear he would present me with a bill for all their sorcery and this would be a situation in which I would be unable to restrain myself from calling down furious wrath upon one and all. So far, they haven’t called to tell me otherwise, though one of their minions did leave a message asking if my experience was satisfactory. I have yet to phone her back.
Copyright © 2010 Eric Fritzius
We love Chase Bank. Sure, they’re a multinational conglomerate that’s probably directly or indirectly responsible for much of the world’s misery and pain, but they’ve been fairly kind to us. More accurately, they’ve been fairly kind to us as compared with other such thieving, conniving, misery-spreading credit card organizations which shall remain nameless. (*COUGH*COUGH*SHITIBANK*COUGH*)
We’ve had a Chase Platinum Mastercard for a couple of years now. (“Ooooooh, ahhhhhh!”) I’m sure Chase wanted us to see it as some kind of status symbol when they offered it, but I’m pretty sure anyone who hasn’t recently declared bankruptcy probably has one of these in their couch cushions somewhere. When we lived in Charlotte, back before we were poor college students and had a decent income, we used to pay all of our bills with the card, then pay it off, on time, every month just to cheese off Chase. As revenge, they upped our credit limit in the hope we’d start spending more frivolously.
That all sounds pretty swell, but the thing we really like about Chase Bank is not that they gave us the Chase Platinum Mastercard but that they continue trying to give us more and more Chase Platinum Mastercards despite the fact that we already have one. It’s now gotten to the point that nearly one out of five calls to our house is a Chase representative offering us a great deal on a Platinum Mastercard from them. I’ve heard Ashley repeatedly explain to Chase’s tele-minions that we don’t need their card because we have one already and how can they not already know this since they’re the company that gave it to us in the first place. They usually scratch their heads and resolve that we’re lying to them because they keep calling back.
Today it was my turn.
TELE-MINION: Hello, my name is Barbara. May I please speak with Ashley Fritzuuii… Fruitziiuce… Frizzutiuezs…?
ME: I’m sorry, Barbara, but she’s not here right now.
TELE-MINION: Very well, sir. I’ll call back another time.
ME: May I ask what this is regarding?
TELE-MINION: I’m with Chase Bank.
ME: Ah. Would this be a credit card offer?
TELE-MINION: (Cautiously) Why, yes. It is.
ME: Ah. Would this be a credit card offer for a Chase Platinum Mastercard?
TELE-MINION: (Surprised) Why, yes. It is.
ME: (Adopting best John Cleese circa Holy Grail French accent) We already got one. Is ver’ nice’a!
After Barbara the tele-minion stopped laughing (which just goes to show even evil minions get Python references) she was able to look in the case history of our call-center telemarketing file and see that the last several calls to us were met with wild claims of our already having the card. Didn’t seem to matter because, as Barbara explained, all previous tele-minions had checked the Attempt Later box on their call-center screens, passing our hot potato on to the next rube. Barbara promised to check the Already Got One box instead, so our hot potato should cease to be an issue. (This is not the first time we’ve been told this, I might add.)
Being a devious soul, though, it seems to me that this series of calls demonstrates a flaw in the tele-minion/potential customer relationship. That flaw is: They can’t really know if I’m lying. Sure, I haven’t lied to them yet, but that hasn’t done me any good at all. They still call back despite my truthful proclamations that I cannot use what they’re offering because I already have it.
And in this we find a new fun way to play with the minds of the various other multinational, misery-spewing conglomerates of the world. I think it should become my personal policy that whenever a tele-minion of any sort phones I should just tell them I already have whatever it is they’re trying to sell and that I’m really steamed about all the calls I keep getting about it and now wish to cancel my order or service. Of course, they won’t be able to find an order to cancel or an account to close or a history of either, leaving me plenty of room to get royally angry about their incompetence. They’ll have to get their supervisor on the line who won’t be able to figure anything out any better. He’ll call his superior in (who, as middle management, traditionally has even less idea what’s going on than the folks on the floor–I know, I used to work for Onstar.) He’ll call the tech-department, who also won’t be able to figure out what’s going on and may be more likely to know that I’m lying, but no one believes the techies anyway so it won’t matter. Eventually, they’ll have no choice but to offer me lots of money for my all my trouble. Then a few days later, they’ll be calling again to start the vicious circle once again.
I have way too much time on my hands, don’t I?
Copyright © 2009 Eric Fritzius
The Talkin’ Actual Fantasy Telephone Conversations Not Actually Heard in My House Blues (a Horribly Untrue Tale)
MICHAEL— Hello. Mr. Fritz… Fritzi…. Frietz…. Fritsieus?
MICHAEL— Hi, my name is Michael and I work for the State Troopers’ Association. As you may know, our fall fund drive is approaching and it’s very import that we…
ME— (Rudely interrupting) Here’s where I have to stop you, Michael. See, I’ve already had this conversation with about four of you guys in the past four months and I can already tell you exactly how this is going to go down.
MICHAEL— Sir, I…
ME— No, no. Let me finish, Michael. Cause I’m pretty good at this. See, Michael, had I allowed this call to continue, uninterrupted, what would have happened is as follows: You would have continued speaking, going into a long-winded spiel about how the Troopers’ Association needs money and is in the process of gearing up for their annual fund drive and were hoping to find people willing to donate funds to that drive. However, Michael, you would have delivered this appeal in such a rapid-fire burst of speech that I would not have been able to get a word in edgewise without rudely interrupting you. In order not to seem rude, I would then have allowed you blow on for nearly a minute until you came to the end of the massive paragraph printed on the card in front of you. At that point, you would have issued an inquiry such as, “Can we count on you for $50?” or “How much can we count on you for?” You might even use a bold statement such as “I can put you down for $50.” Whichever you used, the goal of your endgame, as we both know, would be to get me to part with as much money as possible, with continued negotiations downward should I not wish to give the full $50. At this point, Michael, you would have at last paused to allow me to speak, an opportunity I would then take in order to make the point I would have preferred to have made far earlier; which is this: beyond the repeated annoying phone calls, I have nothing against the Troopers’ Association, nor many of the other organizations who call seeking my money; I do, however, have a hard and fast rule in my household, which is that I accept absolutely no telephone solicitation of any kind. The only exception to this rule is if that solicitation is coming directly from representatives of my telephone company, my long-distance service or a competing long-distance service, and these are only entertained if those companies are actively looking to save me money over my present services. Even then, it’s really really dicey. To date, not one of them has succeeded.
MICHAEL— Sir, I can assure you that I’m not soli…
ME— At that point in our hypothetical conversation, Michael, you would have rudely interrupted me to assure me that you were not actually soliciting money over the telephone at all, and what you had only intended to do was to offer to send me material in the mail which I might look over and then make a donation of an amount of my choosing, say $50. You would then have further assured me, as your brethren have many times before, that this was in no way telephone solicitation. I would then have been forced to read to you the definition of solicitation out of my handy American Heritage Dictionary; which is, Michael: 1) To seek to obtain by persuasion, entreaty, or formal application; or 2) To petition persistently. Both of these would have fit our particular conversation like chipped beef gravy on a biscuit.
MICHAEL— But, sir, I…
ME— And it is at that point in our conversation, Michael, that you would either have attempted a second dash against the defensive barriers of the definition of solicitation, or—more likely—hung up the phone without another word, or—even more likely—hung up the phone while uttering the word “asshole” slightly over your breath. (Pause) So, Michael… Why don’t we save ourselves some time, here, and you can just go ahead and pick one of those options now.
ME— Click indeed, Michael. Click, indeed.
Copyright © 2009 Eric Fritzius
The Talkin’ Mystery Poo, Ghost Pirate Plastic Footsteps of Doom Blues (a Home Improvement Horribly True Tale)
At 3 a.m., Monday morning, I was awakened by a whimper from our dog Sadie. It was the usual whimper she gives off when she has to “go potty” and isn’t going to be able to go back to sleep until she does. I waited and tried to snooze, hoping I was wrong.
Moments later, my peace was disturbed again, this time by a cold dog nose thrust into my face from the side of the bed, followed by another plaintive whimper.
“Whadayuwant?” I said.
I got up, put on my robe and slippers and went out to water the dog. Our cat, Avie, heard us and got up to see what we were doing—cause damn if the dog gets to go outside and she doesn’t. Turned out she was hungry, so I fed her and gave Sadie a dog cookie to keep her quiet and then tried to get everyone back to bed before this hour-of-the-wolf trek turned into a fit of insomnia for me.
About half an hour later I was lying in bed still pretty much awake, but I could feel myself drifting toward slumber. Then I heard something that caused my eyes to pop open and my ears to perk up. Elsewhere in the house, I heard the distinctive sound of plastic sheeting being disturbed. In fact, it sounded exactly like two footsteps being taken across plastic sheeting. Now, the plastic sheeting part was explainable because we still had a couple of sheets of plastic drop-cloth on the floor of the living room, left over from our weekend painting project. The real trouble with hearing two footsteps on plastic sheeting is that my wife was asleep in bed beside me, the cat was asleep on my chest and the dog was snoring away on her giant pillow by the bed. The only other pet in the house was a fish. This meant that I’d either dreamed I’d heard footsteps on the plastic or something or someone else had made them.
I slid out of the covers and retrieved my brainin’ stick from beside the bed. At no point did it strike me as wise to wake my wife, even though I was potentially about to do battle with another human being. I went to the bedroom door and debated the merits of turning on the hall light. On the one hand, it might expose a prowler prowling in the hall; on the other, it would also blind me. Instead, I crept into the hall, through the dark and made it to the foyer. There, I reached around the corner into the living room, where the sheeting was located. Keeping the wall between me and the hanging lamp, I flipped on the light switch. There was no movement to be heard so I peeked around the corner. No one was there.
Great, so if there was a prowler, they A) were elsewhere in the house, and B) now knew I was looking for them and exactly where I was. The fortunate part of this, though, was that because of the painting project we had enough furniture scattered in obvious walkways that if they tried to escape or run to attack me they would be unable to keep from running into it, alerting me to their location. I heard nothing.
I moved through the living room and into the kitchen. No one was there.
I checked the garage door. Still locked.
I circled back into the den where I checked the back door, also locked, and returned to the foyer, where prowlers still weren’t visibly prowling and where the front door was similarly locked. Then, after searching all the other obvious places for a couple of minutes, I decided to file the whole thing away as misheard leaf noise from a deer outside, otherwise I’d never be able to return to sleep.
Around 7, I woke to find the wife up and about, readying for work.
“I heard an odd noise at 3:30,” I said. I then told her about the plastic footsteps.
“Huh,” she said in a tone that suggested I’d provided a clue to a mystery she was working on. “Well, there is an odd poo in the hallway. Maybe we have a mouse.”
A mouse, I thought. Yeah, that made sense. It was getting close to winter, the time for all good mice to try and get indoors. Only when I finally got a look at the odd poo in question, I saw that it was far too large a poo to have come from the ass of an average mouse. No, this was a poo of a different creature and the wife and I both began to audibly hope we didn’t have a rat on our hands. The wife didn’t think there was any way for a rat to get into the house, but I pointed out it would have been easy enough for it to get into the garage on one of the many days we’d left the door open, and from there it was only a matter of sneaking in the interior door when we weren’t looking. She didn’t like this theory. We didn’t need any more troublesome furry creatures in our lives. We already had two.
“All right, kitty,” I told Avie, who was already engaged in her daily ritual of knocking important things off the table for the dog to chew up. “Time to step up to the plate.”
A little after breakfast, the cat and dog tired of their games and thankfully both went to sleep. So I crept out of the den and toward the office to check email.
As I entered our freshly-painted hallway, I spied, seated in the middle of the hallway, the creator of the aforementioned poo and knew that it had also definitely been the source of the noise on the plastic sheeting.
It was not a rat.
It was not a mouse.
It was, instead, a frog.
When I saw it, I laughed out loud, then caught myself, lest I wake the animals and cause a frog-stomping stampede. I scooped him into a coffee cup and then deposited him in the flower bed out back, near a gap where he could hide under the deck and bed down for the winter.
Yep, a frog hopping through the living room could conceivably have made two leaps across the plastic at about the rate footsteps would take. Still not sure how a frog got into the house.
Maybe the rats let him in.
Copyright © 2008 Eric Fritzius
While talking to my sister on the phone, one night, I happened to look down and see my dog Sadie chewing on something silver. On closer inspection, it was one part of the wife’s wedding set: the engagement ring part, i.e. the diamond-encrusted valuable part. I snatched it off the floor before Sadie could devour it. I then saw that the other part of the set was perched on the edge of the coffee table, right at Sadie-mouth-level.
Aw, crap, I thought. Here we go.
Now that Sadie has grown larger, we’re finding we have to police new territory to keep her from eating things we would rather her not eat. She’s mostly given up on chewing up our shoes, which is good, but still finds socks, fabric softener sheets, snotty tissue paper and the contents of cat boxes to be tasty treats. My fear was that if she had decided metal rings were great to eat, we’d be in trouble, because the wife is forever taking her rings off.
I brought the wedding set to the wife and told her what had nearly happened. We laughed and joked about how it would have been unfortunate to have to wait around for Sadie to crap them out and the wife put them on her hand and said she’d be more careful in the future.
The following morning, a Saturday, shortly after breakfast, the wife announced she couldn’t find her wedding set. She swore she’d put them on that morning, having taken them off before bed the night before because they didn’t fit well and she suspected the msg-laden Chinese food we’d eaten the night before might be the culprit behind her swelling finger. But now the rings were definitely not on said finger, so a searchin’ we did go.
The logical place for them to be was in the kitchen, where the wife had cleaned the fish’s bowl earlier that morning. Not there.
We tried the messy breakfast nook table, piled high with papers in need of sorting. Nada.
We tried the coffee table, which was equally piled with papers and mail, but it wasn’t there either.
My office desk–nah.
The kitchen again–still not there.
The tables again–nerrrrrr.
After nearly half an hour of searching, we both stopped and stared at the dog. She looked innocent enough, but who could really tell?
“You don’t think…” the wife began.
“Maybe,” I said. I then proposed a scenario. During the previous night, we had been awakened by the sound of the wife’s alarm clock falling to the floor, having been pulled off of the bedside table by Sadie who had become tangled in its cord as she slept. My thought was that the wife’s rings had also been on the table and could have been pulled off by the clock and potentially gobbled up later at Sadie’s leisure. This theory spat in the face of the wife’s claim that she remembered putting them on again in the morning, but it wasn’t beyond reason that she was mistaken in this memory. We dashed to the bedroom to check again, but found no rings on the floor nor under the bed.
With no other obvious location for the rings, we began to monitor Sadie’s “big potty” sessions and poke through them with sticks to check for rings. We knew it was probably too soon for them to have made it through her system, but we had to check to be sure. It turned out to be a lot of work, too, cause that dog is a dogpoop manufacturing plant running at peak efficiency. The following day we were starting to run out of sticks and I began to regret having recently hurled all the ones from the yard into the woods.
Monday evening, at dinner time, the wife and I sat down to have a meal and took our places on the sofa as usual. (Hey, we can’t exactly eat at the breakfast nook table with it being glutted with papers, and all.) As I was reaching out to shuffle some mail out of the way so I’d have a place to set my drink, I heard a metallic clink and from between two pieces of mail slid the wife’s rings. I gasped, snatched them up and passed them over to her.
“Where were they?” she asked.
“Right there,” I said, pointing to the exact place where Sadie had nearly devoured them two nights before. Neither of us can figure out how we missed them in our multiple searches, unless we each just assumed that they wouldn’t have been left there in that spot in the first place because the wife said she would never leave them there again.
We asked the dog’s forgiveness for suspecting her. After a Pupperoni or two, she granted it.
Copyright © 2008 Eric Fritzius
The Talkin’ Mole Hole, Dish Network Herpatologist, Ringing a Neck Blues (a Snakey Horribly True Tale)
Shortly after we moved into our new house, near Princeton, W.Va., the Dish Network guy came by to install his product. While he was running wires from the inconveniently placed dish behind our house, to the house, he suggested that our flower beds might have something of a snake infestation due to the number of holes he’d noticed in them.
“I prefer to think of them as mole holes,” I replied.
“Yeah, probably mole holes,” he corrected.
I thought about this for a moment. “Incidentally,” I began, “if there were to be snakes about, what sort of snakes might they be in this area?”
“Oh, you know, the usual. Green snakes, copperheads, rattlesnakes…”
“Ah,” I said.
“The rattlesnakes will let you know where they are,” Dish guy said. “It’s the copperheads you have to worry about. They’ll bite you just to laugh at you.”
“Ah,” I said. “And what do they look like?”
“Well, they’re copper colored. Real similar in color to all these leaves,” and then he pointed to the great heap of leaves our home’s previous owners did not see fit to rake from the flower beds back when it was cold enough that you wouldn’t have to worry about deadly poisonous serpents lurking in them. Then he added, “Which is where they like to hide.”
“Ah,” I said.
And where do you think our dog Sadie likes to poop the most? Yes, sir, the flower beds. Even more horrifying, the flower beds pretty much surround the entire back deck portion of the house.
Have I mentioned that my wife Ashley is deathly afraid of snakes? Oh, she’s deathly afraid all right. Sure, under controlled conditions, such as a snake in a cage or a known non-venomous pet snake held by someone else, several feet away, she’s okay with them; it’s the unidentified snakes in the wild she’s none too thrilled with. This is understandable, really, as she grew up in Alaska where they don’t have any snakes. She therefore has no idea of the usual snake etiquette the rest of us take for granted (or, at least, the rest of us who grew up in snake-infested south Mississippi) and would actually prefer fighting a bear.
Back in the fall, having just finished planting some new perennials in the flowerbed by the garage, Ashley called me over to see her work. Just as I arrived, she stooped down to move the garden hose and then yelped and jumped back.
“There’s a snake!”
Sure enough, slithering along the seam where the flowerbed meets the house was a small grayish snake with a white band around his neck. I didn’t know what kind it was, but it was not a copperhead and not a rattlesnake and was kind of cute, so I reached down to see if I could grab the tip of its tail.
“Don’t pick it up!” Ashley screamed.
Huh, I thought. That hadn’t occurred to me. Probably a good idea. I pulled my hand back and a moment later, the snake slithered around the corner of the house and then down behind the drain pipe and out of sight beneath the low boardwalk leading to the back deck.
“Oh, no!” Ashley said. “He canNOT live under there!”
“I don’t see that we have a choice in the matter,” I said. “We can’t exactly get him out.” Well, we could, but it would require destroying the boardwalk to do so. “I tried to catch him, but you said not to,” I added.
“I didn’t tell you not to catch him. I said `don’t pick it up.’ “
“And I didn’t,” I said. “Besides, he’s harmless. He’s probably just some sort of little garden snake.”
The wife was less than thrilled by this assumption. “I should have sprayed him in the face with the hose and when he was distracted I could have killed him,” she said.
“And then we’ll look him up online and it will say: Little gray snake with a ring around his neck—harmless, friend to all human beings, will give you five dollars, very bad luck to kill.’“
“I’ll show him bad luck.”
We left the matter there, but I could tell our little snaky friend did not leave Ashley’s thoughts. In fact, I took no small pleasure in playing snaky pranks on her throughout the rest of the day.
While loading up the last twigs from what had been an enormous pile of sticks I’ve been assembling over the past few months, composed entirely of ones I pulled from the yard, I spotted a large earthworm wiggling on the pavement.
“Oh, look, a snake,” I said calmly. Ashley looked, yelped again and clutched at her heart, Fred Sanford-style. Then she hit me really hard in the shoulder. I had to admit, I deserved it, but it didn’t stop me from continuing to play with fate.
Later, after she had wondered aloud whether or not the snake could get into our garage, I pointed out that it would actually have little difficulty getting into the house, what with the back screen door being cracked open like it was, and all. I was out of reach for that one, but I know she wanted to belt me again. I assured her that snakes don’t like people and avoid them at all costs, so they’d not be real likely to want to get into the house.
Just to further ease her mind, I went and looked up our snaky friend by his description. I’m pretty sure it was a ring-necked snake. If so, the snake we saw was not far from being an adult, at less than a foot in length.
“And he’s not poisonous,” I said.
“Venomous,” she corrected. “Venomous.”
Copyright © 1997-2008 Eric Fritzius
The Talkin’ No Distant Networks, Phoning up India, Won’t be a Problem, Fighting with The Man, DIRECTV SUCKS ASS, Pooping an Angry Monkey Blues (a cautionary Horribly True Tale)
Back in early December, I was flipping through TV channels one night, decided to see what was on NBC and discovered that NBC was no longer there. Neither were FOX or CBS, though, oddly, ABC was still present. We have, or rather had, or rather will have again (though I’m getting ahead of myself) DISH NETWORK.
“Oh, you didn’t know about the lawsuit?” my wife Ashley said.
“What Lawsuit?” I said.
She explained that there had been a lawsuit against DISH NETWORK by television stations that were fed up with them giving away distant networks (i.e. network satellite feeds from stations in New York, Chicago or the West Coast in place of local network affiliates). DISH NETWORK was, according to the plaintiffs, just giving those distant networks away to anybody who asked for them regardless of whether or not those people were capable of receiving local affiliate broadcast signals. DISH lost the case, so they had to take all the Distant Networks away from their customers, (except for ABC, apparently, which I was still receiving just fine).
Now, I understand and even sympathize with the affiliates’ case. They were being deprived of potential advertising dollars by viewers in their coverage area watching satellite feeds of stations from New York City instead of theirs. (In DISH NETWORK’s defense, many of these same affiliate stations, including the ones in my area, still haven’t bothered to comply with the Federal mandates from 2001 stating that they have to be capable of providing their signals to such satellite television services as DISH NETWORK or DIRECTV, thus ending that problem.) And I would be happy to watch their signals but for the fact that I cannot receive them on my TV despite my house being on one of the highest points in our immediate area. Not a one.
Naturally I was pissed. I don’t watch much network TV anyway, save Fox on Sunday nights and Lost on ABC, (which, again, might not have been a problem since I still had ABC), but when I want to watch some networks I don’t want to have any problems.
I went online to research the matter. I found many news articles explaining the situation. These articles almost always ended by saying that while DISH NETWORK was in the doghouse with the Feds, DIRECTV was not liable in the lawsuit, as they had always played nice with their distant network gifting. The articles, to a one, went on to say that DIRECTV was now offering those distant networks to new customers with wild abandon in an attempt to steal customers from DISH. DISH too had its own publicity campaign, suggesting we sign up with American Distant Networks, a service that could provide the networks through our existing dish, for a dollar more per channel than DISH was charging. I began to weigh my options.
Let me just say up front, until that point I had been 97 percent happy with DISH NETWORK. We had a little problem with them near the beginning, which, not coincidentally, also involved issues with our distant networks being removed after three months of service. However, after our local installation representatives phoned them up and threatened to set us up with a DIRECTV system, DISH gave back all but ABC. Since then, we’d had very few problems. We even were able to get ABC back—with a vengeance apparently—after requesting it from them multiple times. We liked the service, we liked the remote, we liked it all. The only thing that could have improved it for me was a DVR, but DISH NETWORK was only giving those away free to new subscribers and would make me pay out the nose for one should I wish to upgrade. Even without the distant networks (ABC excepted), I didn’t really want to switch to anyone else. That is, until a coworker passed me an offer from DIRECTV that seemed too good to pass up.
The offer was for a free installation of a DIRECTV system, plus a free DVR upgrade plus a free portable DVD player, a $50 sign on rebate spread across our first few bills (which my coworker would receive as well for referring us) and a $100 rebate to cover the cost of the DVR. Seemed like a good deal, particularly since DIRECTV’s website made it clear that they were handing out distant networks like party favors. So I phoned them up to get some information and make sure I could get the distant networks. The rep I spoke with assured me that there would be no problem getting the networks. According to her computer, they weren’t available in my area at all so this was a non-issue. She even offered to throw in three months of Showtime if I signed up right then. So I did. Before signing up, though, I stressed to her that I was only interested in joining DIRECT if I could definitely have the distant networks. I didn’t want to have everything installed and then be told it wasn’t a done deal. Nope, I could have them, she said. It wouldn’t be a problem. I told them to come install everything in late December.
I phoned DISH NETWORK up to tell them when to cut us off. Their phone-rep, sensing an emergency, quickly transferred me off to Crisis Customer Control, where a bright and cheery representative tried to talk me down from the ledge. She assured me that DIRECTV could, in no way, make any promises concerning distant networks as it was out of their hands in the first place. She looked up my area in her computer and said that the only distant network I was actually eligible for was Fox. (I then pointed out to her that I was technically still receiving ABC despite the court order saying I should not be, but she agreed to keep quiet about that.) I explained that I’d already signed up for DIRECTV, so it was too late. The rep asked me to wait on disconnecting from DISH until I’d had time to test out DIRECTV, and, hopefully, change my mind. She even gave me a free month of DISH service to accommodate this.
Over Christmas, I went to my sister-in-law’s house where she had a DISH NETWORK DVR. It was a thing of beauty, very smooth and quick and handy in form and function. Seeing it made me feel a little guilty for leaving DISH, but I tried to put such thoughts from my head.
Late December came and DIRECTV sent out a rep to install the system. He showed me how to use it and it was pretty impressive stuff. This system had two coax cables running to it, allowing its DVR to record one channel while we watched another. Or, to record two channels while we watched something else already stored in the DVR. You could also set it to record shows up to two weeks prior to broadcast, record an entire season’s worth of shows or search by Title, Keyword, Subject, etc. It was supposed to be a multi-tasking entertainment wonder.
While the guy was there, I asked him about the distant networks and he put me on the phone with a DIRECTV rep who told me that they would have to put in a waiver request for me, which might take 45 days.
“Um, but my trial period with you guys only lasts seven days,” I said. “After that I’m locked into a contract.” The phone-rep assured me it would not be a problem because the networks weren’t available in my area. He was completely certain the request would go right through. Happened all the time.
After the installation guy left, I began playing with my new toy. It worked pretty good.
Mostly pretty good.
In function, the DIRECTV DVR worked much the same as a DISH NETWORK DVR, only inconveniently slower. Between the time I pressed a button on the remote to activate one of the DVR’s higher functions, such as the guide menu or the programs recorded listing, five seconds might pass before it actually did anything on screen. And unlike the DISH remote, which you could pretty much aim anywhere in the room and still use, the DIRECTV remote had to be aimed directly at the center of the DVR’s all-seeing blue eye or nothing would happen. Of course, you wouldn’t necessarily know something wasn’t happening until you waited five seconds. Also, unlike with DISH, the DIRECTV system wouldn’t allow us to alter the channel guide to show us only the channels we were able to receive. Their guide book said we could, and we followed the instructions to make it do this, but it didn’t work. Only after we called DIRECTV and asked them about it did they mention that they had a bug in their software that wouldn’t allow this and if we only wanted to show the channels we were subscribed to we would have to set up a favorites list in which we deleted all but the channels we wanted to show. Thanks a heap, guys.
In early January, I received a postcard from DIRECTV listing the responses to my waiver requests. I was rather surprised it came so quickly. However, of the five networks listed, only FOX and PBS granted my request. I phoned up DIRECTV and told them I was unhappy. After explaining the situation and my ire, the phone-rep (who I’m pretty sure was in Jaipur) transferred me to DIRECTV’s version of the Crisis Customer Control department, where I waited 10 minutes on hold before getting to explain the situation and ire to a new phone-rep.
The new rep looked over her screen, made appropriate “Hmms” and “huhs” and then said, “This says you were denied for the HD channels. But you don’t have an HDTV, right?”
Only then did I notice the large “HD” in the phrase “HD Broadcast Network Waiver Request Results From DIRECTV.”
“No, I don’t,” I said.
“Why would they ask for HD waivers?” she said. “We don’t even offer HD service with a DVR.”
Mystery thick in the air, she agreed to go ahead and put in an analog signal waiver request and assured me that the reason the channels were denied at all was due to their being HD channels and my lacking an HDTV. Once my channels were granted, they would immediately appear and I’d probably receive a card about it a day or two later.
Before hanging up, just for their records, I once again explained the whole reason for moving to DIRECTV and about the monkey-defecating fury which would erupt from deep within my twisted, blackened, Simpsons-deprived bowels should I be denied my channels. Again, the phone-rep assured me there wouldn’t be a problem. I had, her tone suggested, a far better chance of being devoured by zombie guinea pigs than of not receiving the distant networks. She added that if for some reason—worst-case-scenario only, mind you—I wasn’t able to get the distant networks, I could then speak with one of their customer care reps and all would be made right. What exactly this entailed wasn’t spelled out.
A day or so later—January 10, 2007, to be precise—I received another bit of mail from DIRECTV. This time is was my coupon good for the free portable DVD player I was to receive as a signing bonus. All I had to do was fill out the form, include a copy of my first bill with it and mail it in. At the very bottom of the form, in fine print, it stated that my filled-out form and first bill must be received with a post-mark no later than December 31, 2006. Since it was now January 10, 2007, it seemed unlikely that DIRECTV had even mailed the coupon before December 31. Within my bowels, the monkey began to stir.
I phoned DIRECTV, explained the situation three times to the first Indian man I talked to and he still didn’t seem to grasp the problem. So he transferred me to Crisis Customer Control again, where I waited on hold for 15 minutes before being told by the Crisis Rep to ignore the date and send it in anyway. “They’re just using an old form,” she said. Sick of dealing with them, I hung up and did not reiterate my concerns about the distant networks. I did, however notice that it was nearly time to pay my first bill. I went online to DIRECTV’s site, set up automatic payments, activated it and went ahead and told it to pay my first bill with a one time debit card payment. And since I’d paid my bill with DIRECTV, I figured it was finally time to shed myself of DISH NETWORK.
I phoned DISH up, spoke to another Indian man who listened to my request to sever service and then transferred me again to Crisis Customer Control. The CCC rep tried gamely to talk me down from the ledge; that is, until I told her, “The dish is lying in the yard. It is no longer attached to my house. The equipment is in a box.” This dashed all of her hopes and she agreed to stop service and told me that I owed them nothing.
Days passed and the February 7 resumption date for this season of Lost was swiftly approaching. The bowel-monkey began to pace and I began to frequently check the network channels for signs of activity. Only PBS contained a signal, but I already knew that as I’d begun checking all the network channels after we’d received the HD waiver card.
On February 2, mere seconds before I needed to leave the house to go to work, the mail came with a new postcard from DIRECTV announcing the waiver request results. This time they weren’t for HD networks. However, once again I was denied everything except FOX and PBS. Oddly, the monkey hardly moved at all. I just went to work and was even in a good mood for the whole day, the delicious thought of getting to tear into DIRECTV when I got home keeping me warm and toasty despite the bitter winter cold.
When I got home, I showed Ashley the card. She gleefully offered to call them for me, as she also likes nothing better than releasing some good, old-fashioned righteous indignation upon those who deserve it. She’s far better at it than me, but I declined her offer all the same, for the bowel-monkey was again becoming agitated. He became even moreso when I went to my TV and discovered that despite the postcard’s claim that I was now able to receive FOX, both distant FOX channels listed in the onscreen guide were still unavailable.
After dinner, I phoned up DIRECTV. I knew I was now far past the end of my so-called trial period and that they would raise a stink about this and try to charge me massive fees for allegedly breaking my contract with them. Frankly, though, I was of the opinion that they had broken their contract with me. Not only that, but they had wasted my time and money and I wasn’t going to stand for it. Regardless, I was determined to remain calm and collected, with the bowel-monkey held at bay until such a time as I needed him. What I heard upon being connected to DIRECTV’s phone system, though, sent the monkey bouncing off the walls of my colon in an apoplectic fit of rage. The phone system, upon determining who I was, told me that I owed them $89 for service thus far. Apparently the automatic payments I’d set up and the first debited payment I had made had not taken. Sonofa…
I told the Indian man I first spoke to that I was interested in being transferred to the Very Unhappy Customer Department, (i.e. Crisis Customer Control).
“Oh, ha, ha, hah,” the man said. “I’m very sorry you are unhappy, sir. How may I be of assistance?”
“No, really,” I said. “This is going to need to go to your customer care folks.”
“Ha, ha, hah,” the man said again. “Very sorry. How may I be of assistance, sir?”
Fine. Waste some more of my time. That’ll help you.
So I very politely and calmly explained the situation to the Indian man, the multiple times his company had assured me of the miniscule chances of my not getting distant networks, the card I had just received denying them, and my wish that they come and take their dish off of my house, haul away the DVR and depart my life. I wanted a refund of all monies paid for the equipment, save for our monthly service fees, which I thought was only fair to pay them, despite the fact that they apparently didn’t want my money as the payments I’d already attempted to make hadn’t taken. I wanted to hear nothing more from them ever again.
The Indian man asked if I minded being put on hold while he transferred me to Crisis Customer Control. Not at all.
The phone-minion in Crisis Customer Control was also very nice. She listened to my tale of woe, which I gave in far greater detail than to the Indian man, including the bit about how I was unhappy with the glacier-like slowness of the DVR and the bit about the previous and inexplicable HD network denial.
“You don’t even offer HD service with a DVR,” I said, parroting what a previous DIRECTV minion had told me.
“Oh, no, sir. We do offer HD service with DVRs. In fact, if you would like to upgrade to an HD DVR we can accommodate–”
“I don’t own an HD television, so there is no need to even discuss anything having to do with high definition at this point.”
The phone-minion apologized. She then apologized for my not having received the networks as I’d wished and offered to put in another waiver for them. This new waiver, she said, would take up to 60 days for completion.
“I’m sorry, but I no longer have any confidence in DIRECTV’s ability to secure distant networks for me. What I wish is to cancel my account.”
The phone-minion offered, instead, to put my account on pause, no monthly fees required, while they made their 60 day attempt to get my distant networks. No, I calmly said, this was also not something I was interested in. I wasn’t going to wait 60 days to learn anything more. I was, in fact, going to sign up again with their competition, DISH NETWORK, despite the fact that I know they can’t give me distant networks at all. What I wanted was to end my DIRECTV service entirely. I wanted their dish removed from my back deck, the DVR boxed up and carried away, I wanted the $99 I’d spent on the DVR refunded, and I wished to do business with them never again.
I expected to have a fight on my hands, but Phone-Minion said that if this was really what I wanted she could cancel our account. She explained that they didn’t send people out to collect the equipment, but she could send out a postage paid Recovery Kit. Fine. She also said they couldn’t refund my $99 directly, but that I was still eligible for the rebate I was already supposed to receive for it and would only have to fill out paperwork and send it in. Fine, again. We even agreed upon a date when our service would stop, thus giving me time to sign back up with DISH NETWORK.
This all seemed too easy, though. I had been expecting a fight, but the phone-minion was being remarkably helpful. Then she put me on hold to check something about the rebate and when she returned she said that everything was in order and that they would soon send out my final bill which would additionally contain a $250 early contract termination charge. With that, my previous calmness vanished and a large angry bowel-monkey ripped its way out of my ass and began tearing through the house shrieking at the top of its lungs. I, in turn, began shrieking at the phone-minion.
“Uh, no!” I said. “A $250 fee is entirely unacceptable and I want that removed from our bill right now!!!”
The phone-minion disagreed, saying that we were the ones violating the contract and would thus have to pay the fee. I loudly countered that I believed, in fact, it was DIRECTV who were violating the contract, as they had been the ones who assured me we could receive the distant networks, a condition I had told them was contingent before I’d signed up with them in the first place, and they had repeatedly continued such assurances since. The phone minion remained admirably calm, much as someone who is accustomed to being screamed at regularly might be.
“Well, sir, you’re going to have to file a written dispute if you wish to contest the fee.”
The monkey crashed into our china cabinet. Fortunately, we don’t own any china, so only our curios and knicknacks were jostled. The monkey followed up with a fistful of poop aimed at the DVR. I, however, wasn’t so sure how to handle the situation. I’d spelled out my argument to them in triplicate already, but knew they weren’t prepared to back down from their fees. It seemed to me that I could either keep yelling and disputing things and telling the story again and again, but was that really going to accomplish anything? So I told the phone-minion to hold on and turned to my goodly wife for advice.
“They say we have to dispute this in writing.”
“Let me talk to them,” Ashley said.
I very nearly told the phone-minion, “Aw, shit! Now you’ve done it! HAH! You only THOUGHT you were talking to the bad cop!”
I passed my wife the phone, tagged out of the ring and then the bowel-monkey and I sat down to watch the show.
Having worked as a retail manager in the past, Ashley knows the one cardinal rule of retail customer service: no matter who you’re talking to, they always have a superior officer. (A fact I should have thought of, as I used to work in a call center, myself.) So Ashley let the phone-minion rattle on again about how we would have to dispute our claim in writing, and how many weeks it would take for DIRECTV to respond. When the girl was finished, Ashley calmly said, “No, I don’t think so. I’d like to speak to your manager.”
The minion was taken aback. “Well, he’s just going to tell you the same thing I did,” she said.
“That’s okay. I’d like to speak to your manager.”
The minion put Ashley on hold to go fetch a manager. Over the next few minutes, the minion came back on the line two or three times to let Ashley know she was still fetching the manager. Eventually, a manager came on the line.
“What was your name again?” Ashley asked him. He gave it to her. She wrote it down. And then Ashley calmly and methodically began to take him apart verbally.
I could only hear Ashley’s side of the conversation—though if I’d had any sense at all I would have snatched up the other phone in the room and listened in. All dialogue that follows, therefore, is taken from Ash’s first hand report and from what I could deduce from her half of the conversation. The thing you have to know about Ashley is that the madder she gets about something the calmer and more logical she becomes until she’s just this precision laser, slicing smoothly through any argument presented to her that she deems is wrong. As a guy who’s been on the other end of it many times, I can tell you it’s infuriating.
As seen from my and the bowel-monkey’s vantage point, Ashley launched into the story, emphasizing to the manager the various times when DIRECTV had expressed to us that we were in no danger of not receiving our distant networks. She even invited him to take a look at the call records within our account and count the number of times I had expressed concern that a situation exactly like the one we now found ourselves in would occur. The manager’s counter argument, from what I could tell, consisted of repeatedly saying that we were violating our contract with them. Ash pointed out again that it was our contention that DIRECTV was in violation of our original agreement, to which the manager then responded that, no, we were the ones in violation. After a couple rounds of this, during which I began to sense Ash’s own monkey straining to break free, the manager varied things up a bit by adding that DIRECTV had never made any promises in writing to us regarding the distant networks. They had no control over whether they were granted, or not, so there should have been no expectation on our part that we would receive them.
“Okay, so we may not have received such a guarantee spelled out on a stone tablet,” Ashley snapped, “but that doesn’t mean we weren’t repeatedly assured that we’d be able to get the channels!” At this point, I felt I ought to warn the poor man that it’s bad enough when you get her in cold, calculating, steely anger mode, but if you’ve managed to drive her through into hot, calculating, firey rage, you’re pretty much in trouble.
The manager tried to ignore what she said and returned to his contract violation argument, but Ashley wasn’t letting him get away with it. She told him in no uncertain terms that it was our belief that DIRECTV had intentionally told us what we wanted to hear on the subject of distant networks in order to get us to sign up for their service, knowing full well that by the time we heard anything definite we would be under the terms of that service. This, in her estimation, constituted extremely poor business practices, perhaps even criminally so.
“Well, you are getting FOX,” the man countered, as though this somehow made up for losing the big three.
“Uh, no, we’re not,” Ashley said.
“Yeah, you are,” the manager said.
“NO. WE. ARE. NOT,” Ashley said. While that exchange was going on, the bowel-monkey tossed me the remote and I changed the channel to one of the two listed FOX stations. I scrolled back and forth between the two of them, showcasing the “Channel Not Purchased” message displayed on both. Ashley read the displayed message for the manager’s benefit. He seemed at a loss for words about this.
“You can tell him we are getting PBS,” I said, “but we’ve been getting that for weeks.”
Ashley told him. The manager then became wildly preoccupied offering to connect our FOX for us right then and there.
“No,” Ashley said. “We don’t want you to connect FOX for us. FOX is beside the point. What we want you to do is to disconnect us entirely and waive the $250 fee. And if you’re not prepared to do that, then I need to speak to your manager.”
The manager whimpered something and put her on hold to go fetch his boss. Ashley waited on hold for several minutes, the former manager occasionally popping back on to let her know he was still waiting on his boss. Eventually, he returned to say that his boss was tied up at the moment, but, given our circumstances, had given him authorization to waive the fees. He explained that the $250 charge was automatically going to be placed on our final bill by their computer system and there was no way they could change that. However, his boss had authorized him to give us a confirmation code that, which we can phone up DIRECTV and give to them once we receive our final bill. Allegedly they will then credit us the $250 and be shed of them forever. Or so he said. Ashley wrote everything down, made sure to note the man’s name again for his benefit, thanked him for his effort and hung up.
The monkey and I applauded.
Since last Friday, the wife and I, as well as our various smelly lower primates, have been riding pretty high on our victory over The Man. Unfortunately, my deep-seated paranoia has led me to investigate the matter further and what I’ve dug up causes me concern that our ordeal may not be over.
One doesn’t have to Google very far to find a plethora of consumer complaint sites which seem to indicate that our “victory” is rather unprecedented in the grand scheming of all things DIRECTV. There are people out there with horror stories that make ours pale in comparison; people who have allegedly had their credit bludgeoned, some of whom claim to have never been a customer of DIRECTV in the first place, or people who claim that after complaining bitterly to manager after manager concerning the wrongs against them, they were eventually told “DIRECTV is not responsible for the lies told by our employees. Basically, a lot of people in need of bowel-gorillas. We’ll see.
In the meantime, we’ve signed back up for DISH NETWORK. I meekly called them up to register as a new customer, but since I’d only cancelled my account a week before they said they could just reactivate it for me with no strings attached. Mighty nice of `em. I then asked to upgrade to their version of the DVR, which I decided to lease rather than buy. This meant an 18 month commitment, which considering we’ve been with them since 2001 and also considering we’ve got 18 months left in Ash’s residency, didn’t seem like such a bad deal. Plus there were some sign on rebates and such that helped bring our monthly bill to a reasonable level. We’re still paying more for them than we have would for DIRECTV, but let me assure you, to me it would be well worth it only for the DVR.
On Tuesday, they sent a guy out to install it and we found immediately that the DISH NETWORK DVR is a sleek creature of beauty and speed. I’m still learning the ins and outs of it, but it’s already won over my wife, who hated the DIRECTV DVR with what became an abiding passion. The DISH system has the added advantage of a remote that’s set up much like our old DISH remote—not to mention it does what you tell it to do when you tell it to do it and without any lip and does so no matter where in the room you point it. (There are actually some features of the DIRECTV DVR that I think could stand to be incorporated into the DISH one, such as the four colorful modular-function buttons, but frankly I’ll take speed over elegance in this case.)
We’re even going to try and pick up some distant networks through an outfit called All American Direct, which has already said we’re eligible for FOX. My guess is that they too won’t be able to get us the other distant networks either, but I’ve already put in my waiver request. The guy who installed the system said the local stations are now supposed to be available on DISH by 2008. In the meantime, he said he had no problem getting all of his own networks through American Direct. Of course, we’ve heard that before, but the bottom line is, this time we’re not putting any stock in it. If it happens, great. If not, we’ll somehow survive with online Lost webisodes.
So, is the moral of this story DISH NETWORK good, DIRECTV bad? Well, DIRECTV is certainly bad, but I somehow doubt I’d have to look very hard to find similar horror stories about DISH. They’re very similar companies, after all and it stands to reason that they’ve engaged in similar business practices to try and stay ahead of the other guy. At this point, though, I prefer not to do such research. I prefer to hold onto the potential illusion that they’re a swell bunch of folks who always have my back. That’s how they’ve successfully portrayed themselves to us over the course of our five plus years of service with them. If they’re not good, they’re doing a darn good job of disguising it for us. Your mileage may vary.
If you recall from the DirecTV saga in February, we told DirecTV off, assuring them that we had no intentions of remaining with their service, nor of paying their $258 cancellation fee, due to the fact that they mislead us on numerous occasions by, essentially, promising us that we could have distant networks when it turned out we couldn’t. At that point, after nearly 40 minutes of holding and waiting and speaking to managers and then the manager of the managers and then requesting to speak to the manager of the manager of the managers, the 2nd manager of managers we were talking to finally relented and said he’d been authorized to give us a confirmation number that would allow us to get out of paying the cancellation fee. The trick, he explained, was that we had to wait for our final bill to arrive with the $258 fee on it, then phone them up with the number and they would credit us the $258.
Three weeks back, we received said bill, phoned DirecTV up and completely expected them to tell us the guy we’d spoken with before had been talking out of his ass. (There are lots of examples of this very sort of thing floating about the net.) They did not, however. Instead, after nearly 20 minutes of waiting on hold between their phone rep in India and the Crisis Customer Counselor he’d rolled our particular ball of dung to, the CCCounselor came on the line and told us our account had been sent to their credit-claims department and it should no longer be a problem for us. We’d heard that before too, so our skepticism remained strong.
We’ve now received a notice from DirecTV saying that they had credited our account $275 and we owed them nothing. In fact, because they’d only billed us $258.68 for the cancellation fee in the first place, we have a $16.32 credit with them, which means they now owe us money. They owe us an apology too, but I think we’ll get the $16.32 sooner.
I received another piece of mail from the evil and ass-sucking DirecTV; this, after having been assured by a previous piece of mail that I was finally finished with them for good.
This new bit of mail contained a note that read:
Dear Mr. Fritzius,
We regret that you recently cancelled your DIRECTV service. We hope you enjoyed the diverse programming DIRECTV offers and that you consider DIRECTV in the future for your home entertaining needs.
Our records indicate that we have sent you a final bill for $258.68, but have not yet received payment. It is important that we receive payment in full in order to clear your account. Please be aware that you may be billed additional charges if the commitment term was not completed. If there is an unresolved issue you would like to discuss, or to make an immediate payment, please contact our customer service department and a customer service representative will be happy to help you.
The note went on to list the many convenient ways I could send money to them and ended with a sentence reading, “If you have already made the payment, please disregard this letter,” and was signed by a manager in their collections department.
I immediately phoned DirecTV up and asked them what, if anything, their computers claimed I still owed them. The operator I spoke with (who did not sound as though she were located in Delhi, though she did sound very guarded, as if ready for a fight—indicating that my account has likely been flagged as “problem customer”), said that her computer showed that I owed them nothing and that I actually had $16.32 in credit.
Now, I hope that this note from the collections department was something automatically generated and sent out, perhaps around the same time that the previous note was sent. My suspicion, however, is that I’m looking at the opening volleys in a war between DirecTV’s collections department and their credit claims department. If so, I’m the poor asshole caught in the crossfire.
While I had Miss Phone Rep on the line, I did inquire as to whether or not DirecTV would actually be paying me the $16.32 they say they owe me, or if I should just forget it? She said that as I am no longer technically a customer, and therefore cannot receive credit on my next bill, they would be issuing me a check within the next 4 to 6 weeks.
It’s been over two months since my last bit of dealing with the vile and ass-sucking entity known as DirecTV. It’s been blissful. In fact, I continue to have nothing but high praise for Dish Network, despite the fact that I am still without distant networks, except for Fox. If I must be without distant networks, I’d much rather be without them with Dish Network than with the sphincter remora that is DirecTV. But I digress…
Last I heard from them, they still owed me $16.32, the difference between the amount they originally said we owed them for our early disconnection and the amount they eventually wound up crediting us in order to cover the original claim against us.
In the intervening days, we’ve faithfully received a bill each month displaying that credit of $16.32.
Today, we finally received a check in the mail for the amount of $16.32. I will, of course, be cashing it and hoping against hope that it is the final piece of mail, junk or otherwise, I ever receive from that company.
I’m an optimistic soul, no?
Copyright © 2006 Eric Fritzius
The Talkin’ Mount Childless Wonder, Mama’s Little baby Loves Ziggurats, Emergency Baby-Sitting the Borg Blues
After a particularly harsh day at my “liberry” workplace, I began complaining to my wife Ashley about the limited parenting skills of some of our patrons and how many were perfectly willing to allow their children to run wild and destructive throughout public places. It’s not a new complaint from me, I’m afraid, and I must admit that it was made from my safe and comfy perch atop Mount Childless Wonder. Evidently, the gods of irony were paying attention, however and decided to give me a little taste of how parenthood might play out.
The following Friday, I wasn’t scheduled to go in to work at all, so I was tidying up a few things around Chez Fritzius when the phone rang. It was our friend Beth from med-school. Beth said that her husband Will’s father had been rushed to a regional hospital with chest pains and it looked as if he was having more heart issues. The man’s been in and out of the hospital for such heart issues throughout the past year, but it was looking pretty serious this time. Beth and Will were going to head over. Could we babysit?
Now when I heard this, I immediately said “Sure,” cause it’s Beth doing the asking, plus Ash and I really love her baby, Ashley Nicole, (here on to be referred to as The Baby, so as not to get too confusing with namesake issues). I also figured that she’d be bringing The Baby over sometime that evening when my Ashley was around to know what to do with her.
“Thanks. I’ll be over with her in an hour or so,” Beth said. There was a bit more to it than that, of course, involving calls made to my Ashley to let her know what was on the way, but that’s the gist. Ashley alerted me to the fact that she wasn’t getting off from work til close to 5, so this meant it would be me and the baby all by ourselves for most of the day. Actually, she eased me into this revelation by first scaring the hell out of me.
ASHLEY: So you think you’ll be okay with her for the afternoon?
ASHLEY: What about when I’m on call tonight?
ME: Do what? You’re on call tonight?
ME: You’re shitting me.
ME: I knew you were on call on Sunday night, but not tonight.
ASHLEY: I had to trade.
ME: You’re shitting me.
ME: You’re shitting me?
Suddenly four and a half hours with the kid didn’t seem so bad.
To make matters worse, this was Beth’s first time to be apart from her kid for more than a couple of hours since they left the hospital nine months ago. Now, here she was leaving her kid in the care of a terrified sweathog in a stuffy, vaguely cat-hair infested house. But as they brought The Baby in, she gave me a huge grin and laughed and I somehow felt a little better about what I’d gotten myself into.
Beth and Will hauled in a foldable crib that transformed into a changing table, an activity saucer, a car seat, a stroller and bags and bags of toys, diapers, food, water, bottles, etc. Then Beth began rattling off instructions at me as to feeding times, proper Enfamil mixing ratios, how often the baby could have fruit-juice, nap schedules, Orajel application times, mood swings and a host of other informational tidbits that I failed to write down in their entirety. It was all just a blur. And within minutes, they’d departed, leaving me standing in my kitchen holding this 19 pound human, with whom I was not entirely sure what to do.
So, The Baby and I sat around on the couch for a bit, her smiling and laughing at me while I said things to her like, “Who’s a pretty girl?” and “I’m gonna get your piggies!” and “I have no clue what to do with you at all,” in soothing babytalk. After a while, this got old for me, so I looked around for something else to do. I spied her Baby Einstein baby-seat activity saucer–a big two-tiered, doughnut-shaped contraption the upper surface of which is lined with toys and various noise and light-making devices to entertain the baby as she sits in the middle of the doughnut and can rotate 360 degrees to reach all the stuff. So I stuck her in that. It seemed to work okay, as she happily began banging the crap out of all the toys in front of her, laughing away.
Baby happy, I tried to go to the kitchen for something to drink. The Baby immediately freaked out and began screaming at the top of her lungs. I dashed back and she got quiet and happy again. I took a step toward the kitchen and more screaming began. Step back and happy smiles. I then saw that so as long as I was within both eyesight and close proximity to The Baby, she remained happy. And I remained thirsty. This, of course, only lasted a few minutes, before she decided she’d had enough of the saucer and no amount of proximity or happy baby talk would calm her down. So I had to lift her out of it and sit on the couch while holding her to keep her quiet.
I then tried to find something on television that would be age appropriate. Instead of something good, though, I found the Doodlebops, perhaps the gayest kids’ show ever. (And when I say “gayest” I don’t mean it in a “Right Wing, All Homosexuals are Evil and Therefore so is this Show” kind of way. Cause, that’s not my perspective. I meant “gayest” in more of a “Violent Prison Rape in a Cell Block Designed by Rejects from the Set & Costuming Department of Cirque Du Soleil, with a 1960’s-Yellow-Submarine-Fab-Clown Fetish, and Cojo gets to watch,” kind of way. Go look at their website and tell me I’m wrong.)
After 10 minutes of that unwatchable crap, which The Baby wisely paid no attention to whatsoever, I was forced to change the channel to Star Trek: The Next Generation. It was in the middle of Best of Both Worlds Part I. Sweet! Now that’s some Borg action for your ass!
The Baby only let me watch a few minutes of this, though, before she began getting restless and started warming up her voice for another good bout of screaming. So I jumped up and walked around the house with her. I walked into the kitchen with her. I walked back into the living room with her. I walked her to the window to look out at the lack of hillbillies working on the house. I walked her back to the kitchen and got myself something to drink, which is what I remembered I’d wanted a while ago. Eventually, she began to get heavy, so I walked her back to the couch and bounced her on my knee singing “Mama’s Little Baby Loves Shortnin’ Bread,” only I don’t know any lyrics beyond the chorus so I began making some up involving Mama’s Little Baby’s Love of Ziggurats. (I have no idea where this came from, but apparently mama’s little baby really enjoyed Babylonian terraced pyramids.)
This singing and bouncing only worked for a few minutes before the baby decided she wasn’t having any more of it and began to kick and cry again. That’s when I realized what I was dealing with, here: this Baby was a Borg. Sure, I could get through her defenses for a bit, but soon she would adapt and her shields would return to full strength and she’d once again begin carving me up with her vicious sonic beams. I would have to continuously come up with new and more creative material if I was to stay ahead of the destruciton.
Then it hit me: a bottle! Beth had said something about the baby perhaps needing a bottle this afternoon. So I stuck her back in the saucer and ran to the kitchen to prepare one. Beth had already thoughtfull filled empty bottles with distilled water, so all I had to do was scoop in some carefully measured Enfamil while the baby raged. One dash back to the living room, one baby scooped out of the saucer and onto the couch, one bottle crammed in baby’s mouth and I had silence once more. For ten whole minutes. Then she finished the bottle and it was time for more squalling.
Pretty soon, the phone rang. It was Ashley calling to see how I was doing.
“When will you be home?” I whined.
“Not til 4:30 or 5. Why? Is everything okay?”
I told her about my Borg theory. She didn’t buy it.
“Just put her down on a blanket on the floor with her toys. I’ve seen her do it at Beth’s all the time. She’ll play there for hours.”
More screaming as I ran for a blanket, more as I spread it on our floor and dumped her bag of toys on it. She shut up for all of five seconds as I put her on the blanket, then opened up with more. So I began picking up her toys and giving them voices, entertaining her with a clumsy puppet show. It worked pretty well. She even seemed to like it when I made Eeyore scream in pain as she bit into his head. By the time this wore off, Data and Worf had rescued Captain Picard from the Borg vessel and I was wishing someone would rescue me.
Then a miraculous thing happened. When the Baby began screaming again, I didn’t know what else to do other than pick her up and rock her gently back and forth. After only a couple minutes, her screams turned to cries and then groans and then burbles and finally to little snores as she dropped off to sleep. I continued rocking until I was sure she was out, then I carefully put her on a big pillow and retreated to the kitchen where I quietly—oh, so quietly—lurked.
After 5, Ashley came home to relieve me of baby duty, though not of baby doody, as we soon came to discover. Fortunately, I’d gone through Beth’s Diaper Changing Boot Camp with this kid months ago, so even a spectacularly poopy diaper was nothing to fear.
Our weekend with The Baby, however, proceeded much as it had during the first four hours. We’d entertain the Baby, she’d get fed up with whatever we were doing and start to scream. Then we’d come up with new tricks or retry old tricks, they’d work for a bit, then fail. Or we’d discover that she was really crying because she was hungry/tired/teething/poopy/etc., we would apply fixes to said issues, they’d work for a bit, then fail again. Eventually The Baby would cry herself to sleep and we’d get an hour or so of peace during which we’d walk very very slowly and make no noise at all, terrified of waking The Baby.
I was worried about having to be up all night with this routine, for as I knew well in advance I’d be the guy to have to get up and deal with it all because my wife wants me to see just how much brutal, tiring work having a baby actually is—all so I’ll think twice next time I go cavalierly trying to impregnate her. Fortunately, though, The Baby slept through the first and second nights with only minor incidents of a midnight feeding or diaper switchout to speak of. She even slept right through a massive thunderstorm Saturday night, which was more than I could say for myself.
Bravely, we decided to take her out to lunch with us on Saturday. This involved putting her in her car-seat for the trip, which first involved figuring out how to install said car seat into my wife’s Element. Installing Baby into the seat was only slightly less difficult and involved me accidentally pinching her leg while trying to buckle the straps across her. I didn’t realize I’d done it until the Baby unleashed a scream of pain that rattled my very soul. We unbuckled her quickly and saw a small bruise already forming on her thigh.
“Aw, hell, Beth’s going to kill me,” I said. “Maybe she won’t notice.”
At the Mexican restaurant, The Baby feasted mightily on Mexican rice and demanded more after every spoon. But she remained well behaved so long as we were shoveling in the food. Afterward, we bravely took her with us to Wal-Mart where we had one of the most pleasant Saturday Wally World experiences ever. See usually when we’re dumb enough to head to Wal-Mart on a Saturday, we have an awful time of it because on Saturday THE WHOLE DAMN WORLD comes to Wal-Mart and it is glutted with people slowly—ever so slowly—shopping for whatever’s cheapest and least healthy, usually with 8 kids in tow. After struggling our way out of said glut, we swear and swear and swear we’ll never set foot in Wal-Mart on a Saturday again. Then a couple weeks go by and we’re back there like fools. This time, though, Wally World was only about a third as full as it usually is and we had our ambassador to The World seated in the child seat of our shopping cart. Ashley had attached a small stuffed toy on a cord to The Baby’s wrist and, as we strolled down the aisles, the Baby would flap it back and forth happily, beaming smiles at any and all who met her gaze. Our journey was accompanied by calls of “What a cute baby!” and “Oh, look at that baby!” and “Beautiful baby.” And we too beamed, like proud unofficial aunt and uncle.
At one point, we ran into some people we know from church. They did double and triple takes as they saw what we had in our cart, tried to do the math in their head as to when or if one of us had been pregnant at any point in the last 9 months, then cautiously said, “Is that…. um… your…?”
“Nope, she’s a friend’s.”
They looked relieved.
As blessedly well-behaved as The Baby was in Wal-Mart, she turned on the screaming again as soon as we got home. By Sunday afternoon, that act had worn very very thin and we were ready for Beth to take her away from us. When Beth phoned to let us know she was on her way, we asked about the whole screaming bit.
“Oh, just set her on the blanket with some toys and she’ll get over it after a few minutes.”
“That’s just it,” we said. “She doesn’t. She’ll scream at the top of her lungs for five minutes, stop and play for one and then return to screaming for five.”
“Just let her go,” Beth said. “She’s got to learn.”
So we did. We let her go. And go she did. For a solid hour that kid screamed and raged and shook her little fists at us. And the longer we let her go the more furious she became. She was so angry that it became comical and we soon found ourselves stiffling laughter. Still, we were afraid that she was becoming so upset that she’d throw up. Logic imposed itself on us and we decided that Beth shouldn’t have to see a distraught kid when she arrived, so we picked the Baby up and tried to give her a bottle. She remained viciously pissed off at us for twenty minutes, despite our efforts. I tell ya, that kid’s going to be a force to be reckoned with.
When Beth arrived, she’d no sooner walked through the door than she said, “All right, who hurt my baby?”
“You told her?!” I said to my wife in as an accusing a tone as I could come up with.
“No. I told you she’d know.”
Beth attended to The Baby’s bruised leg, gave it a smooch and admitted that she’d done as much herself by accident.
After The Baby and Beth had gathered up the mountain of baby supplies and departed, we sat in our house and enjoyed the silence. Eventually, we had to leave the house again, but when we returned home the place seemed a bit more empty than we remembered it.
How do I feel about my first taste of parenthood? It’s an acquired taste. Kinda salty and bitter in places, but with some good nougaty parts in there too. I think I could learn to like it.
Copyright © 2006 Eric Fritzius
The Talkin’ Grad-u-mation, Hide the Presents, No Hints, Floral Prints, Stupid Cat Blues (a Non-Horrible, Horribly True Tale)
As you may know by now, I have a bit of difficulty in keeping surprises a surprise when it comes to my wife.
Oh, I try. I really do. But she almost always knows I’m planning something for her major celebratory days (birthday, anniversary, Christmas, etc.) and starts pestering me for hints weeks in advance. And like a moron, I always think, “This time I’m really gonna pull it off. She’ll never guess this hint.” Then, as though she’s plucked it from my mind, out she comes with the answer, pissing me off and causing me to vow never again to give her any hints. Then the next birthday comes along and there I go lobbing hints like softballs at the Near-Sighted-Middle-School-Girl’s Little League Playoffs.
After my defeat last October—in which I entirely failed to keep secret the fact that her birthday present was me finally hauling away our old washing machine, freeing up valuable space in the dining room—I became determined that I was finally gonna get one past the batter.
My three opportunities to do so, barring any unforseen emergency holidays, were Christmas, our anniversary and Ashley’s med-school graduation present. Christmas was right out, because by the time I thought of a really good and perfect present December had already passed. That left our 5th anniversary in early February and graduation in late May. I aimed for Feb.
And as to the perfect present… Oh, it was just too good.
A couple of years ago, while browsing in a nearby gallery of community art, Ashley fell in love with a painting by local artist Jeanne Brenneman. It was a floral watercolor entitled Flower Tower. Beyond the beauty of the flowers depicted, though, the construction of the painting and frame was nearly as intriguing. Mrs. Brenneman had taken an eight inch square piece of rough hand-made watercolor paper, the kind with craggy crinkly edges, and glued it to a larger piece of watercolor paper, also with cool craggy edges. Atop these layers, she painted the watercolor floral scene, and a most beautiful one at that. Then she mounted the whole thing on a thin piece of foam core which she in turn mounted to a matte board, framed by another matte board but with enough space that the viewer could see this painting floating above the back-most board, and then the whole thing was sealed in a wooden outer frame. It was beautiful work. In fact, Ash thought it was fantastic. She immediately declared her undying love for the painting and threatened to buy it right there. Then she saw the price tag and we realized we could neither justify nor afford dropping several hundred dollars for it, no matter how much we loved the painting. And while the artist herself was known to do prints of her existing work, a print of this picture, no matter how well-rendered, could never match the original three-dimensional work.
Deciding not to buy this painting was a harder thing to do than we thought, though. We went back to the hall more than once just to look at the painting. And then, several months later, Ashley tracked down Mrs. Brenneman’s website, discovered the painting was again on display in another town and we drove nearly an hour to go see it. Once again, though, we could not justify its purchase. Not with two cars in need of repair and rent in need of being paid. We’d have to save such extravagances for the future, like maybe in 2039, after we’ve paid off the school loans.
As distant a purchase as that seemed, the idea of the painting and the memory of how much Ashley loved it stuck in my head and then resurfaced in January when I was brainstorming presents for our 5th anniversary. I decided to look into it. And while I still couldn’t really justify buying the painting as a whim purchase, I was—with a careful application of rationalization—able to justify purchasing it for a major event.
So I returned to Jeanne Brenneman’s website and sent her an e-mail explaining who I was, which painting I was interested in and that I was interested in purchasing it as a surprise present for either our then upcoming 5th anniversary or for Ash’s graduation. Was it still on the market? Mrs. Brenneman soon wrote me back and said that it was indeed still on the market, but had been submitted for inclusion in an upcoming painting competition and would possibly be unavailable until late April. This was fine with me, as it helped me decide when I was going to give it to Ashley. What I liked even better was that her asking price for the painting was at least a full $100 less than I remembered it being before. Win win.
After this, I just had to start saving cash. I stashed away bits and pieces from paycheck to paycheck as well as my entire payment for some freelance web design work I had done. My nest egg grew, safely hidden away. (I knew it was safe cause Ashley knows I never have any money, so she doesn’t go looking for it.)
Meanwhile, I knew I had to come up with some way to keep hint-beggar Ashley off my back. May was quickly approaching and the closer we got to it the more likely she would start asking what my plans were. To the rescue came my mother-in-law. She e-mailed me to ask if I would like to go in on a family graduation present for Ash, one which she hoped to persuade Ash’s grandmother and sisters to join in for. They were going to get her some sort of black pearl jewelry. I said it sounded like a fine gift, but I opted out citing my own plans.
“Don’t give her any hints!” Ma warned. Evidently Ma didn’t tell that to everyone else in her little cabal. Within a week, Ashley came to me and told me that she knew there were some sort of group plans afoot. Apparently, her grandmother had spilled that much, though she hadn’t spoiled any surprises.
“Oh, really?” I said, trying to act innocent, which I knew Ashley would interpret as guilt.
“You know about it, don’t you?!”
“Gimme a hint!”
“Nope. I can’t say a word about it,” I told her. “This is something other people are working on, so I can’t give any hints.”
“Aw, c’mon! Just one hint.”
“No!” I shouted. I then further distanced myself from any hint-giving by speaking exclusively to the cat for the next 20 minutes.
The spoilage of Ma and Company’s surprise was a blessing in disguise, though. So long as I continued to deny everything and not give any hints, Ashley seemed satisfied that I was in cahoots with them and left me alone about any solo plans I might have. And so the days passed.
Since January, I’d kept in contact with Mrs. Brenneman -mail and had continued to let her know I was still in line to make the purchase. We agreed to meet at the library of all places to make the exchange and soon our agreed upon date of May 26 had arrived. My co-workers were all in on the surprise by then and were sworn to secrecy.
Mrs. Brenneman arrived at exactly the time she said she would, painting case in hand. We chatted a little about the painting, the awards that it had won and her general creative process for it. Then, I filled out a bill of sale form she had brought, made a copy of it for her and made the purchase. The painting was now mine and soon it would be my wife’s. I just had to find a good place to hide it.
I left work in the early afternoon on Thursday and headed home. Ashley’s parents had already arrived, but had taken her out for lunch, leaving me the run of the house. My plan was to hide it somewhere inconspicuous yet accessible so I could sneak out late Friday night and hang it up somewhere in the house. After abandoning a few bad ideas, I opted to hide the painting behind the door to my office. The door is always open and would be difficult to close even if I wanted to due to the runner carpet wadded up in front of it. Seemed perfect. I even gave the room a few passes from the hall to make sure it didn’t attract my eye. Seemed good to me.
That night, Ashley, Ma, Pa and I went to the big awards banquet at Ashley’s school. This is the traditional ceremony where all the students and their families come and feast from a banquet buffet while the school’s faculty congratulates them for surviving all the way to graduation. A number of students are recognized with scholarship awards and the sashes and cords for the top 10 percent grade achievers are passed out. (Ash wasn’t among the top 10 percent, but she’s not far from it. Frankly, passing medical school at all is the major achievement. And like the old joke goes: Question– What do you call a student who graduates from medical school with a GPA of 70? Answer– Doctor.)
Ashley had brought along a manila folder, which I thought was a little odd, especially after she became real secretive about it when I asked what it contained.
About mid-way through the awards ceremony, the dean of students stood and announced she was about to award the American Osteopathic Foundation’s Donna Jones Moritsugu Award, an award given to an non-student individual who has demonstrated “immeasurable support” of a student enrolled in the medical school and to the Osteopathic profession at large. The candidate for the award is chosen from several such candidates and voted upon by the faculty of the school itself. In addition to a beautiful framed plaque, the award came with a check for $240. And when the dean announced the winner of the award, she called my name.
I was stunned. I never knew such an award existed in the first place, nor would I have expected to win it if I had. I suppose, that I wouldn’t have been surprised to have been a candidate, after all I was the co-president of the school’s spouse/significant other support organization for a year and helped out at the school in other ways. But primarily, the award was granted for helping support my wife as she went through the four years of schooling. In other words, I was given the award for being a good husband. How many men get to say they were given an award (one that came with cash) for being a good husband? Not many, I’d wager.
After the ceremony, on our way to the car, Ashley revealed what she had in the manila envelope. She had intended to open it and distribute its contents during the ceremony, but no such opportunity was officially offered. What it contained were were two printed citations, one for Ma and Pa and one for me. They had the official school seal and signature of the president of the school, and stated that they were given as a token of her sincerest gratitude for supporting and encouraging her efforts during school. The award was given as thanks for patience and love and being an integral part of her success. This single paper meant more to me than the framed one I’d just received inside. And it was at that moment that I decided I would give Ashley her present earlier than I’d intended.
My original plan had been to keep her painting a surprise all the way until Saturday morning. I was planning to sneak out and hang it up on an existing nail during the night and let her discover it when she got up Saturday. There on Thursday night, though, I felt such gratitude for the award she’d just given me that I wanted to rush home and give the painting right then. This was an urge I was able to fight off, though. I’d worked far too hard to keep this thing under wraps to give in quite that easily. However, I didn’t think it would hurt to give it to her a day early.
That night, just after we had retired for the evening, I got up to go fill my bedside water bottle and grabbed the painting from its hiding place on the way down the hall. I took down an existing frame on one wall of our living room, hung the new painting up, filled my bottle and then stashed the old frame behind the office door on my way back to bed. We went to sleep.
Early in the morning, our cat began driving us crazy. Usually we let her out in the evening, when she can run around in the dark and feel relatively safe from the entire lack of big bad animals that don’t stalk and kill her during the day. However, she didn’t get to go out in the evening because she was too scared that Ma and Pa might stalk and kill her if she came out from hiding. So at 5 in the morning, she began making a pest of herself, jumping on and off the bed and running up and down the halls at full speed, making as much noise as possible, in an effort to anger us to the point that we hurl her from the house.
“I better go let the cat out,” Ashley said, groggily.
“I can do it,” I said, fearing that she would see her surprise on the way through the living room.
“No, I got it,” she said, rising and snatching up the cat. I prayed silently that she wouldn’t notice her gift hanging on the living room wall, but figured that it wouldn’t be so bad if she did. She didn’t see it, though, and came right back to bed.
When we finally got up for good, around 7, I followed her into the kitchen. I had wondered how long it would take for her to notice it. I’d even envisioned the possibility that she wouldn’t notice it and would leave for her school-related functions that morning. Nope. Within 30 seconds of entering the kitchen, she turned, caught sight of it, turned away then did a double-take as she saw it again. Her mouth dropped open and she said, “Ohhhhh.” Then she stared across the room at the painting for a long time, her eyes welling up with tears, then turned and smiled at me. The reaction was so satisfying. It was worth every bit of sneaking and plotting and secret-keeping on my part.
“How long have you been planning this?” she asked.
“Months,” I said.
“And he kept it a secret all this time!” Ma crowed triumphantly on my behalf. “He finally got one on you!”
“He did,” Ash said, giving me a big kiss. “He finally did.”
Copyright © 2005 Eric Fritzius
My little blue 1999 Chevy Malibu has been a good and faithful car for me. For the most part. It’s certainly treated me leagues better than my former vehicle, the blue 1985 Chevy Caprice Classic, referred to with heavy spite and ire as the Bent Turd. Oh, sure, the Malibu has konked out on me on a few occasions and has had to have various bits of it replaced, such as water pumps, serpentine belts and the occasional alternator, but it’s been a good car all the same.
A while back, I began noticing a strange belt-squeaking noise beneath its hood, though and I decided it was time to get it checked out before I learned what was causing that noise the hard way. I decided to bite the bullet and take it in to the local Chevy dealership for its 100,000 mile tune up. I’d actually had mixed experiences with the dealership in the past and was once even yelled at by one of their employees who kept insisting that the keys he had handed me were my car keys despite the fact that they weren’t. But again, they’re the Chevy dealership so ostensibly they would be the ideal place to take a Chevy.
We dropped my car off late on an early March Tuesday night. It was a carefully chosen night, because my wife Ashley’s medical rotation in March gave her Wednesdays off so she would be able to shuttle me to work the next day.
With snow falling on my head, I stood in the freezing wind and filled out the little after-hours drop off sheet. I wrote there that in addition to the tune up, all belts should be inspected as one of them was making noise. I also checked that I would need an oil change.
“Did you mention the grabby brakes?” Ash asked as I climbed back into her car.
“Uh, no,” I said. I’d forgotten about the grabby brakes. They’ve actually been grabby for quite some time, but the local brake place said everything looked good in them so we shouldn’t worry too much. Still, who likes grabby brakes?
The following morning, Ash called the Chevy place and told them about the grabby brakes. They said they’d check them. Meanwhile, they already claimed to have found a leaky engine intake that needed fixing to the tune of $700. Ash asked if this was something dire or if it was the kind of thing that might wait a few months. They said it could wait, though if it should spring an antifreeze leak we should bring it back in.
“Did you remind them about the oil change?” I asked.
“Well, it’s on the form I filled out, so I’m sure they’ll get it,” I said.
Despite claiming they would phone us, the garage never called. So in the early afternoon, I phoned them and learned three things: 1) the Malibu needed new rear brake drums, which would stop the grabby brakes; 2) the mechanics weren’t going to do the tune up because it would involve replacing bits that would have to be replaced again once we decided to have the intake fixed and they didn’t want to do the work twice—fine with me, as I didn’t want to pay for it twice, either; 3) they couldn’t hear any belt squealing noises so they hadn’t done anything with the belts. I told them okay on the brake drums and they said they would call when they were finished. Naturally, they did not and by 5 p.m. I was left with no other conclusion but that my car was not fixed.
The next morning, Ashley drove me to the Chevy dealership where I planned to wait for my car to be finished. However, when I arrived they claimed my car had already been repaired the previous day. I paid them for the drum replacement and noticed they’d also charged me for a lube job. It was only after I was driving away that I noticed they had not replaced the little Oil Change in X number of Miles sticker on the inside of the window, leading me to believe they’d not actually changed the oil.
The car ran okay for several days, despite the continued belt squeal sound. I could kind of understand them not being able to hear it because it only seemed to happen on warm days.
The following Sunday, the right rear tire began to make a horrible clunking sound whenever we braked at low speeds. By Wednesday, we decided this wasn’t good so we took it back in to the dealership. The man at the service counter seemed a bit angry about this. He also didn’t seem to want to accept the car at all as he was four mechanics short. We didn’t see how his lack of mechanics was our problem and told him we would much prefer it if they had a look anyway since we didn’t like driving with horrible clunking sounds coming from brakes they had allegedly repaired. Dude wrote down a little of what we were saying, but wasn’t writing in near as much detail as I thought was required.
“Also, would you please have them investigate the belt-squealing sound that I’m still hearing in the engine,” I asked. “Oh, and please change the oil, too.” This seemed to make the angry man even more angry, but he agreed he would try if they had time.
When I called them for a status report that afternoon, the Angry Man at the desk said they couldn’t hear any clunking noises coming from the engine nor any squealing noise from the tire. I corrected him that it was actually a clunking tire and a squealing engine. He said they still couldn’t hear either and suggested I come in the following day to help them hear it.
So at work, Thursday morning, I gave the dealership a call to arrange the auditory aid session. Angry man said they had driven the car again that morning and still couldn’t hear anything. I asked if I could come by at noon and he said that would work.
At noon, a co-worker dropped me off at the dealership. Angry man was there but became still angrier when he saw me. He said all the mechanics go to lunch between noon and 1, so I’d have to come back later.
“Well, I sure wish you’d mentioned that on the phone before you told me it would be okay for me to come in at noon,” I said, very calmly.
Angry man flared. “Well, I’m not going to stand here and argue with you who was right or who was wrong!” he said. “Let’s just go give her a drive now.”
“Sure thing,” I said, still remaining admirably calm.
He dug up my key and led me outside where he moved for the driver’s side door of my car.
“Would you mind if I drove?” I said. Angry Man did seem to mind, but didn’t really have any grounds to refuse me the wheel of my own vehicle. To make small talk while I started the car and maneuvered out of the parking lot, Angry Man started back in on the whole business about how the mechanics had already driven the car twice and couldn’t hear a thing. As he was saying this, I applied the brakes until the car was at a very low speed.
“CLUNK CLUNK CLUNK CLUNK CLUNK CLUNK!” said the back tire.
Angry man’s mouth dropped open. “Yeah. Yeah, I hear that. Anybody could hear that.” He then became incredibly angry at the incompetence of his mechanics for putting him in such an embarrassing situation. I continued to drive the car out of the parking lot and down the road, both to try and get the belt to squeal and also to make angry man that much more uncomfortable at having to sit there beside me and take it after once again having been shown up. The belt never did squeal for me, but like I told him it usually didn’t do it when the weather was cold.
“Uh, you said you needed an oil change too, right?” Angry Man said as we drove back to the dealership. “Well, we did that when you brought it in last week.”
“Oh, really? I thought maybe you hadn’t since no one replaced the mileage sticker.”
”Well… um… they’re supposed to do that,” he said.
We resolved to have them fix the clunk and I would save the belt squeal for a day when it was actually squealing.
Naturally, the Chevy dealership never phoned me to alert me to what the problem was with the clunking. I phoned them, however, to learn from a very sheepish sounding Angry Man that they had replaced my original faulty brake drum with yet another faulty brake drum. Wisely he didn’t try to get me to pay for the re-replacement.
Jump ahead two weeks. The wife and I go out of town for a medical mission trip to Central America during which time my car sits in my driveway. Upon our return, the belt squeal has not gone away, but has in fact gotten worse.
It sounded particularly bad on the following Saturday, when it did its best impersonation of a choir of crickets throughout my drive to work. I made it to work okay, but on my way home, after having made it nearly up the giant hill that leads to my street, I hit a dip in the pavement and heard something beneath the hood give way and noticed that the power steering was no longer working. As I reached my driveway, the engine died and the battery light came on. I parked, called the wife down for a gander and opened the hood. Sure enough, the serpentine belt was completely off its track. And the reason it was off its track is because the alternator had broken off.
No, really. Broken. Off.
I’m talking, broken off from the engine block at the bracket, broken off.
“Well, that sucks,” I said, staring at it.
“Yes. That does suck,” Ashley replied.
“Those complete and utter morons,” I added.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by this. However, you’d think that when you go to allegedly qualified Chevrolet repair specialists at an automobile repair garage that deals specifically with Chevrolets and you tell them that your particular Chevrolet is making a sound that’s reminiscent of a belt being loose that they’d actually, oh, I don’t know, HAVE A LOOK IN THE GENERAL BELT AREA or something and maybe noticed that the bracket connecting the alternator had CRACKS IN IT!
I don’t say nearly often enough how much I adore my car insurance company USAA. Genuinely love them. In addition to being very good insurance, they also have customer service representatives that should be the envy of all other call centers the universe wide. When you phone them, you don’t get a huge hassle from any automated answering service that makes you jump through hoops to talk to a real person. No. You get to talk to a real person who’s friendly, empathetic and willing to help make sure things are as easy for you as possible. It’s one of the most amazing concepts I’ve ever heard of!
USAA not only arranged for a tow truck to come get my car and haul it to the nearest repair provider, which just happened to be within walking distance of my house, but they also commiserated with me over how much having one’s alternator fall off truly sucks. I think I’m in love! Even better, the towing is COVERED by my oh-so-marvelous USAA insurance! Glory Be!
The tow truck driver, arrived in 20 minutes and hauled my car down the hill. I then gave it an hour before calling the conveniently located repair place. I was expecting to have to explain why my car had been dumped on them and what I wanted them to fix and then have to wait upwards of a day for this busy garage to get around to doing anything about it. However, they already knew the whole drill about my car. In fact, they’d already been on the phone with parts yards looking for a new bracket for my alternator and expected to hear back from them any time. That wasn’t the truly shocking part, though.
“Did you know your alternator was missing a nut in the back?” my new repair guy asked.
“No. No, I didn’t,” I said.
Apparently, in the back of the alternator there is a bolt that helps hold the thing down and that bolt is supposed to be held in place by a nut. Without the nut, much vibration can occur which can and did cause the metal bracket of the alternator housing to weaken and eventually snap.
Now, I can’t say for sure that the Chevy dealership is directly at fault for that nut being missing, but they were the last folks that had anything to do with that part of my car since they’re the ones who put in a new serpentine belt several months ago. A more conspiratorial soul might suggest they’d done it on purpose to get more business from me, but I don’t think so. No, those folks seem to hate doing any work at all, let alone bringing more work down on their heads through sabotage.
A mere six hours later, my new repair guy PHONED ME to say the car was ready. Imagine that; a repair shop that actually PHONES YOU when your car is ready, rather than making you hire a Sherpa. I walked on down the hill and picked it up with no problem. The bill was only $86, which didn’t strike me as too bad at all. I think I’ve found my new repair shop.
Copyright © 2005 Eric Fritzius
The Talkin’ Hauling Birthdays, Lack of Carrot Cake & Tooters, Mo’ Better Blues (a Horribly True birthday incident)
My wife Ashley recently celebrated a birthday. I won’t say how old she is, cause she’ll hit me, but she’s two years older than I am and I’m 32. You do the math. (Hey, she was probably gonna hit me anyway.)
Since we left higher paying gigs in the big city to move to West Virginia, for med-school and library servitude respectively, we’ve not done any major birthday presents for one another. We always get one another a birthday card and maybe something small, but nothing too expensive.
Still, at the beginning of the month in which Ash’s birthday fell, I spent quite a bit of time trying to come up with what I was going to do for her. I knew she wouldn’t want anything huge, but I felt I still needed to do something. Fortunately, Ash’s a fairly simple gal who cares not for diamonds, pearls or expensive fru-fru. She doesn’t wear a lot of jewelry—usually just her wedding set and a pair of earrings or maybe her favorite necklace that features a small gold nugget that was one of the only products of her father’s former Alaskan gold mine. She does like shoes quite a bit, but not excessively so.
What to get her? What to get her?
Then I thought of it…
One of our last major purchases was a brand new clothes washer. It’s a Big ol’ Kenmore, the kind with the porcelain on steel top—which somehow seemed an important option to take back when we bought it, but dadgum if I can figure out if that’s done us any good since. We purchased the washer shortly after moving into the house we now rent, in April of 2003, and we love it as much as two people can love a major appliance. It’s nice and roomy and is so much more efficient at washing our clothes than the tiny apartment-style washer we had been using since we got married.
Once we had the new Mo’ Better washer firmly installed, we had the question of what to do with the old washer. We don’t own a truck, so we couldn’t just haul it off ourselves. Having dropped a lot of cash in the moving process itself, not to mention on the new washer, we also didn’t want to spend any more money in order to get rid of it; so renting a truck seemed out of the question. We called around to the local shelters and charity organizations, but while they would all have gladly accepted it, none of them had the capability to come and remove it from our home. As a temporary measure, we rolled it into the kitchen and used it as an island for a while until we could come up with some ingenious way to get rid of it.
Eventually, Ashley got it in her head that she wanted to build a real kitchen island to replace the defunct washer. She marched right down to the hardware store, told them what she wanted to do
“I take it you’re the handyman in your house?” the hardware store man asked.
“Oh, yeah,” Ash said.
They then spent an hour or so drawing up plans and selecting and ordering the butcher-block top. She bought most of the materials she would need from them, then got me to drive her to the nearest city with a Lowes for what the local store didn’t have. She then spent all her spare time for a month sawing, sanding and assembling the island. When she was finished, she had a beautiful and sturdy butcher-block island to call her very own.
Once we had the new Mo’ Better island firmly installed, we again had the question of what to do with our old apartment-style washer. We still didn’t own a truck, still couldn’t find any charitable organizations that did either and we were still too cheap to call U-Haul. Ash was all for putting a sign out by the road or an ad in the classifieds to sell it. Trouble was, while the washer does work it doesn’t work as well as you would hope a washer you paid good money for might. It would do in a pinch, if you didn’t have one at all, but you would probably have to do the spin cycle a couple of times to get all the soap and water out of your clothes. With no obvious solution, we finally just rolled the washer over into a corner of the kitchen, in front of our cookbook shelf, and began piling junk mail on top of it.
Months passed. In fact, a year passed and suddenly it was early October and I’d started wondering what to do for her birthday. That’s when I hit upon the idea of getting rid of the washer once and for all.
“How would you do it?” you might ask.
Ah, I would rent a truck.
“Hey, but I thought you were cheap, and stuff,” you might also say.
Sure am. However, I was going to spend $20 at the bare minimum for a birthday present anyway, so why not funnel that Yuppie $5 into renting a truck, getting rid of the devil-washer and securing myself a warm place in my wife’s affections for the effort?
I could just picture her coming home on Saturday, from her month-long emergency room rotation, in Princeton, WV, walking in the door and spying the 3’x2’x2′ patch of open space where the washer once sat. And on the floor, in the middle of the patch of glorious emptiness, would be the beautiful birthday card I had already purchased for her at a local downtown gallery. Sounded like a plan.
Trouble is, my surprises like this NEVER work out and I have a long and storied history of them not working out.
Why do they not work out? Well, for one thing, I have a wife who insists on pestering me for hints about her birthday present until she gets enough to put it together. Doing this is one of her greatest joys in life. Preventing her from doing this is my eternal challenge—a very difficult one, cause she’s smarter than me. It also doesn’t help that I have a big mouth and let it be known that I had something planned for her.
So Wednesday night, the night before the actual move, she called from Princeton to interrogate me about her present.
“It’s green, right? You said it was green,” she said as a clever ruse to get me to admit to something. I was steadfastly not admitting anything if I could keep from doing so. Should have just hung up right then.
“Is it animal, vegetable or mineral?” she continued.
“Um… none of the above,” I said. At its core, her present was essentially empty space, which is—subtracting the minerals, pollen, bugs and cat-hair that might be floating through it—none of the above. She didn’t believe this part and continued plying me with questions. I, in turn, continued being evasive and assured her that while she would really really love her present, she was never ever going to guess what it was.
After a goodly number of other questions, during which I let it slip that I’d had to make a phone call to make arrangements for her present, she asked, “Is this something that’s going to help me cook?”
I could guess what she might be thinking, which I theorized was that she thought I’d ordered her a Kitchen-Aid—a device she has always wanted and which I will one day buy for her when we have money. However, it was still a perfect chance for a veiled hint, because once the washing machine was out of the way we would finally be able to get to the shelf of cookbooks its been blocking for the past year and a half.
“It might help with cooking,” I said. “It might indeed.”
Oddly, this was not the clue that tipped her off. What tipped her was what I said shortly after she said she wished she could come home on Thursday instead of Saturday, as scheduled. I became fearful that she might actually mean it, or worse yet, do it. It would be just like her to have secured an extra two days off somehow and come home early. She’s done similar sneak-arrivals many a time before and she never tells me in advance, allowing me to be happily surprised when she pops in the door, or scared out of my wits when she pops in the door in the middle of the night. The idea that she might pop by in the middle of the washer moving process was not one I fancied.
“Uhm, well if you do come home tomorrow, make it tomorrow afternoon,” I said. Stupid.
“Why is that?” she said with justifiable suspicion.
“Uh… cause the… um… dancing midgets might not be gone by then,” I lamely said. “They, uh… they gotta practice for your party, you know.”
There passed a long silence.
“I know what you’re going to do,” Ashley said with a sudden assurance.
“You… you do?”
“Yep. I know what it is, but I’m not going to tell you because it will just piss you off.”
I could tell by her voice this was not a bluff. Somewhere in that long silence, understanding had dawned on her and I had no doubt that she had figured it out. I don’t know if it was a stray phone-routed psychic signal from me or just that she’s smarter than the average she-bear. Bottom line: she knew and now I had to know for certain that she knew.
“No, go ahead and guess,” I said.
“Okay,” she said. There was a dangerous pause. “You’re getting rid of the washer, aren’t you?”
I cursed, loudly. As she predicted, I was instantly pissed. Once again my big surprise was ruined due to my own stupid mouth and her woman’s intuition. Why? Why can’t I just shut up about it all and keep things a surprise? Why do I have this Blofeld-like need to show off with crafty clues? Why do I let her draw me into these hint-sparring matches in the first place? Why, WHY, WHYYYYY?!
Ashley laughed and laughed as I ranted and cursed some more and pounded the couch cushions. When I was finished and had calmed down, she told me that it was a very thoughtful and sweet present that she did love. And not only was it a very nice present, but it had the added bonus of allowing her to guess what the present was through constant pestering, which she really really loves and is frankly more enjoyable for her than being surprised in the first place.
So the next day, I went and picked up the U-Haul, hand-trucked the washer up the ramp and hauled it down the hill to the charity second-hand store. (And, yes, I did warn them about the washer’s somewhat wonky working-status—I’m not so much of a cheap jerk that I would foist an unreliable appliance onto a charity organization with no warning.) At the end of the job, with mileage and a few gallons of diesel factored in, my total price came to around $30, which I figure is a respectable amount to spend on a birthday present.
At the moment, there is only stray cat food in the space where the washer once stood, but I’ll soon have that cleaned up and her card in its place, ready for her arrival tomorrow. She may not be surprised, but she’ll be considerably less cluttered.
Back before Ashley guessed what her birthday present was, she asked if I was going to make her a birthday cake and buy tooters. I hadn’t actually considered either a cake or tooters, but decided that at least one of those was a good idea. She even suggested I make the fantastic carrot cake recipe she’d found on the internet. And after Ashley ruined her own surprise by guessing her present, the only thing I had left going for me was possibly surprising her with cake.
I’d never actually made a carrot cake before, but figured it couldn’t be too hard so I dug out the recipe. It had lots of other yummy stuff in it, like raisins, crushed pineapple, dates, coconut, cinnamon, vanilla, pecans and a cream cheese icing. I had a lot of the ingredients on hand, but did have to go to the store to pick up dates and carrots all the same. I also decided to cheat on the homemade icing and just buy some Duncan Hines cream cheese icing. It’s good stuff and I probably couldn’t make better by myself.
Friday night I started preparing it. It’s kind of a three bowl affair with a dry ingredients bowl, a wet ingredients bowl and a fruit, veggies and nuts ingredient bowl. You mix the first two together then mix in the third, slap it in the oven and take it out in an hour. Well I gathered what I thought were all of my ingredients and put them in their respective bowls, mixed them in the proper order and poured the mixture into the first of two floured cake pans I’d prepared. I was supposed to fill the pan to 3/4ths from the pan’s top and I did this, but I had no cake batter left over afterward to fill the second pan. I had somehow expected there would be more batter than that. How the heck am I supposed to make a double layer carrot cake if I’ve only got one layer?
Oh, well, I thought. It’ll work out. I slapped it on in the oven.
Can you guess which ingredient I left out?
That’s right: THE CARROTS—only the MOST important ingredient of a Carrot Cake.
I’d been trying so hard not to screw it all up and had been very careful to set out all of my ingredients ahead of time, except, apparently, the stinking carrots, which remained in the fridge. I only realized my mistake when removing the cake from the oven, whereupon I surveyed its beautiful brown surface and thought to myself, “Oh man, now that’s going to be one badass tasty carrot ca–aaahhhhhHHHHH!!”
In the end, though, it turned out just fine. We learned that you can make a carrot cake without the carrots and it’s still absolutely delicious. It had plenty of other nummy ingredients to make it interesting. Sure, it was a little bit drier than we might have liked, but still just… Mwahh!
In fact, here’s the recipe. Go try it yourself and see if I’m not right.
JUICE’S LACK OF CARROT CAKE
Preheat Oven to 375 degrees
In first bowl mix
2 cups flour
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons baking soda
3 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
In second bowl mix
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 cup corn oil
In third bowl mix
3 cups shredded carrots *
1 16 oz can crushed pineapple
1 box dates (shredded)
1 cup flake coconut **
1 cup pecan halves
1 cup raisins
Thoroughly mix first and second bowls, then stir in ingredients from third bowl. Pour into floured cake pans until the pan is 3/4 full. Bake at 375 for 1 hour or until toothpick comes out clean.
** If you leave out the carrots, you might put an extra cup of coconut in. I think I did by accident and my cake was scrumptious.
Cream Cheese Icing
4 cups powdered sugar
28 oz cream cheese at room temp
1/2/ cup unsalted butter at room temp
4 teaspoons vanilla
Copyright © 2004 Eric Fritzius
The Talkin’, Electric Coma, Ghost of the Bent Turd, Three Heaps of Itis Blues (Two Narrowly Averted Horribly True Tales in One)
Somewhere out there, my former and unlamented vehicle, the 1985 blue Chevy Caprice Classic, affectionately known as the Bent Turd, has died. Not that the death of the Bent Turd would be surprising; it was on its last legs when I owned it, so how much better could it really be treating the poor bastard who had the misfortune of buying it at a bulk car auction? I figure the first time it broke down, or made that horrible Velociraptor through a jet intake noise that caused me to get rid of it in the first place, its new owner probably sold it for scrap and it has since been compacted into a nice blue and rust-colored metal cube. Until recently, however, I didn’t actually have any clinical evidence that the `Turd—a devil contraption that left me stranded, powerless and full of utter desperation on far more occasions than I care to count—was indeed no more. That is, until its ghost up and possessed my new car.
Last month, on a Friday, my wife Ashley returned from her month-long pediatrics rotation with what seemed like at least two different illnesses. They say no medical student gets out of a pediatrics rotation without contracting at least two handfuls of walking crud, and this would seem to be true. The snot-nosed, Junior Typhoid Marys in Princeton are spreading contamination in every direction their uncooperative little heads can turn. Ash firmly believes that if, as a child, she had ever thrown a spitting tantrum and refused treatment in a doctor’s office, like some of the kids she’s seen, she would not have survived the beating her mother would have given her in return. Alas, parenting skills in Princeton would seem to be low priority. As a result, Ash had been given some pretty heavy symptoms that looked as if they would take more than a couple of days to shuck.
Almost as if mirroring Ashley’s ailments, my 1999 blue Chevy Malibu began giving off congested sort of sounds as I turned the key in it, Saturday morning. A pang of guilt rose in me, as I’d been procrastinating about taking it in for a much-needed oil change for the last thousand miles or so. But as my day progressed, this pang grew into a full-fledged guilt trip. It seemed that every time I tried to start her up, the Malibu’s engine had more and more difficulty coming to life. At one point, it failed to start on the first try and I had to do it again—a first time occurrence for this particular vehicle. By Sunday night, it was obvious that I needed to take this car in and soon.
My theory—and I speak from years of experience as an automotive dumbass—was that the car’s engine had very little oil in it or, at the least, very old oil in it, and was having difficulty starting due to lack of proper lubrication. It could have been ignition gnomes for all I really knew, but I imagined the whole thing would soon seize up and become a chunk of fused metal unless I took steps to prevent that.
Monday morning neither Ash nor the car were feeling much better. The car started, albeit hesitantly, and drove me across town to my favorite service station, near my library workplace. I left it with them and walked to the library, spending a couple of hours there before returning to collect it.
“We checked all your fluids and replaced the oil,” the little old man who runs the station said. Then, almost as an aside, he asked, “Did you have any trouble starting it this morning?”
“Yeah. I assumed it was caused by old oil.”
The man gave me a funny look I wasn’t sure I liked. “Wasn’t the oil. It was your battery,” he said. “We had to jump it off just to get it in the garage.”
Ah ha! The battery! That at least made sense. This car hadn’t had a new battery since I bought it, so it was probably about time for this four year old, high-fallutin’, Duracel to kick off.
It certainly didn’t sound up to snuff when I started the engine in the service station parking lot. The more I thought about it, the more I knew my battery issues would come to a head soon very soon. Sure, it could probably get me home, but there was no guarantee it would start the following morning and I might once again be stranded at the hands of a blue Chevrolet product. It was time to change the battery.
Now what I should have done was leave the car with the service station and ask them check it out and replace it. Instead, I drove the car to work and let it sit all day while I contemplated my next move.
The last time I changed a battery was in the Bent Turd after it went into an electric coma in a grocery store parking lot, back when I lived in Tupelo, Mississippi. My buddy Joe had been visiting me at the time and it was only with his assistance and chauffeuring skills that I was able to get the dead battery changed and retain my sanity.
Back then, my automotive tool box consisted of a broken crescent wrench and a hammer, so Joe first had to take me to Wal-Mart for both the new battery and a ratchet set with which to install said battery. Unfortunately, it turned out that none of the ratchet bits in my new kit actually fit the bolts of my battery cable clamps. A semi-nearby autoparts store sold us a correct sized battery-clamp-changing bit. However, while the new bit fit the standard bolt on the black cable clamp it did not fit the metric bolt some damn genius had seen fit to install in the red one. Back we went for a metric bit. Back we went again for a metric bit that was the correct size. Then, to our horror, we figured out that all our trips to the autoparts store had been a waste of time since the metric bolt had actually fused with both the cable clamp and the battery post and no amount of ratcheting was going to pry it loose from the battery anyway. The people at the auto-parts shop, whose facial expressions had clearly been downgrading our intelligence with each successive visit, were more than happy to sell us a pair of cable cutters, a new cable clamp to splice onto the end of the cable once we’d cut it, and the most expensive roll of electrical tape outside of the Air Force. In the end it would probably have been easier to build a new car around the battery.
Such problems were to be expected with the Bent Turd, but not the Malibu. I should have known something was amiss right away.
I called Ashley and told her of my plan to replace the battery while the replacing was good. She said it was a good idea and that she’d been to the doctor herself that day. She’d been diagnosed with the triple-threat of conjunctivitis, sinusitis and tonsillitis, most of which were manifesting in her left eye. The conjunctivitis and sinusitis she had no doubt caught from a leaky toddler, but the tonsillitis lay firmly on the doorstep of her own childhood physician who, for unknown reasons, refused to take hers out. Bastard.
Leaving the library parking lot wasn’t fun. I turned the key in the Malibu’s ignition. The dash lights flickered and the engine gave a couple of dry-heaves. I turned it again. More heaves, then more flickering. But, on the third try, the engine heaved once then started up and stayed up. Brilliant! I put her in gear and immediately drove to Advance Autoparts, the only auto-parts place in town that I knew was both able to diagnose my turmoil and open.
At Advance Autoparts, a young guy named James wheeled a battery testing cart out to my car and began hooking it up to the battery. The test computer made several painful little sounds. James adjusted the clamps on the battery posts and pressed some buttons. The sounds continued.
“I think it’s dead,” James declared. “No, wait,” he said, watching his display as the test computer made a somewhat less-distressed whine. “It’s not dead. Says you have two volts left in it. You’d need twelve to start the car.”
“Take me to your batteries,” I said.
We went back inside and looked up what kind of battery I would need. The best one they had cost $109. This seemed a little steep to me, since the battery I’d bought for the `Turd had been around $45. I paid the $109 anyway. Turned out to be the best money I’ve spent all year, because Advance Autoparts offers not only free testing of your vehicle’s battery but free installation of a new battery should it come to that. In essence, they saved me from the following tribulation.
James wheeled his tool cart out to the Malibu and began the process of unscrewing the cable clamps. While he was doing that, I regaled him with the above tale of the Bent Turd’s battery change. James agreed that it was a horrible experience to have to go through and pointed out that fortunately both bolt heads on the Malibu’s old battery were of standard measurement.
I should have kept my mouth shut. I’d been thinking of that earlier incident throughout the day, so the `Turd was already in my thoughts. And if there’s anything I learned during my time with the Bent Turd it’s that you can never say its name because that only gives it power. At that moment, the evil spirit of my former vehicle perked up its ears, heard its name taken in vain and bit down hard on any chances of an easy repair.
James had already taken off the black cable clamp and had started on the red one when he found it mysteriously wouldn’t budge.
“Bolt’s kinda tight,” he said. He sprayed it with some WD-40, waited and tried again. Nothing. He repeated. Still nothing. James scratched his head.
Over the course of ten minutes, various sized bits were tried, none of them effective. James then went for his pair of vice grips and attacked the bolt with them for a few more minutes. All this accomplished was to further strip the bolt head.
I stood by the car, thankful that I wasn’t the one who had to deal with it and thankful that I had thought to dress warmly that morning. My fleece vest, long sleeve shirt and overcoat were nice and toasty while James’ hooded sweat-shirt looked awfully thin. There was fear in my heart, though. What if James couldn’t change the battery out? What if I was left stranded in the Advance Autoparts parking lot, waiting for the tow-truck to come and haul my poor possessed Malibu off to—dare I even type it—the dealership! There was no way in hell I’d get my car out of there for less than $200, and that wasn’t including the battery for which I’d already spent $109! Damn you, Bent Turd! Damn you!
“This is the worst battery I’ve ever had to change,” James said, just to further erode my confidence. “I better go get Cliff.” James returned a few minutes later with Cliff, who was evidently the resident veteran battery changer. I was rather hoping for Max von Sydow, from the Exorcist, but Cliff didn’t even have a crucifix. Instead, he took a look at the battery, smiled and picked up James’ pair of vice grips, taking glee in his belief that he was about to show James up. Cliff, however, had never met the ghost of the Bent Turd.
Over the course of the next forty minutes, the two men struggled bitterly with the battery cable. James’ original set of vice grips were abandoned—nay, hurled back into the toolbox—in favor of a brand new pair from their selection of tools inside. The new grips certainly gripped better. They also ground the head of the bolt into a nearly smooth condition much better than the previous pair too.
Twenty minutes into their battle, through sheer brute force, Cliff managed to pull the bolt and its terminal out of the battery entirely. However, the bolt was still fused into the terminal itself, which was now dangling at the end of the cable and which still couldn’t be attached to the new battery until the bolt was removed.
“We need another pair,” Cliff said. And back inside James went for yet another brand new pair of vice grips. When he returned, Cliff clamped his grips on one side of the bolt and James clamped the new ones to the other side. They then spent another twenty minutes struggling.
During this time, I paid only marginal attention to what they were doing. Sure, I was having to wait a long time, I was having to stand in the cold with threatening-looking rain-filled clouds hovering overhead, I hadn’t had any supper, but I was warmed and filled by my own personal internal sun of thankfulness that I was not the guy having to do any of this work. And I was pretty sure neither of them would give up until they’d finished the job. This was personal.
Eventually, even the immortal spirit of the `Turd must have grown weak, for with a great triumphant cry from James and Cliff the bolt finally turned and came free. Cliff grinned, clapped James on the back and then, with his job well done, retrieved his jacket from within the store and went home to the Missus, leaving James to mop up the last of it.
“I’m real sorry you had to wait this long,” James said. “It’s the damnedest thing—`scuse my language.”
“Please,” I said. “You’re not putting me out at all. In fact, you guys just saved me from the biggest headache I can imagine. If you hadn’t been here to do this, it would have been me and my wife having to do it in my cold driveway back home. And she’s got conjunctivitis, sinusitis and tonsillitis!”
“Ouch,” James offered in sympathy.
I suspect the spirit of the `Turd was not been fully exorcised by the Advance Autoparts staff.
Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I drove down to my in-laws’ house in North Carolina to meet up with Ash, who was visiting her parents and still trying to shake off her various diseases. About mid-way through the trip, I tried pass an 18 wheeler and was startled by a sudden loud flapping sound from somewhere within the car. I thought it was a tire at first, but there was no loss of steering control and no emergency lights came on. In fact, other than the flapping, everything seemed fine and after a couple of minutes, even the flapping stopped. I hoped that what I heard was merely a tie rope that might have come off the 18 wheeler, wrapped around my axle and flapped itself to bits against the road. Hope being a powerful thing, I drove the rest of the way to NC and didn’t think much more about it.
Ash suggested I might have lost an engine belt of some sort. I figured it was probably the air-conditioning belt and not the drive belt, since I’d had no problems driving and hadn’t had the air-conditioning on at all. Seemed logical.
Turns out, it was the drive belt AND the air-conditioning belt, since a `99 Malibu only has one belt for all of its various systems. Only about half of my belt was still in the engine, but it had fortunately split down the middle, rather than snapped entirely, so there was still a bit of belt to keep everything running.
We determined pretty quickly that replacing the belt ourselves was out of the question, even with my industrial mechanic father-in-law helping. It seems a special non-metric and non-standard tool is required—a tool which cannot be found even at Advance Autoparts—not to mention the ability to detach the motor itself from the frame of the car in order to thread the new belt into it. In fact, according to the mechanic who was nice enough to replace our belt for a decent price, and on a Saturday no less, the whole belt issue is really a conspiracy between the dealerships and the manufacturers, who are trying like hell to produce cars that are impossible to repair at home.
While the ghost of the Bent Turd may have struck again, and may yet still be with me, I’ve come to a rather surprising conclusion about it: I think I like it. Sure, its presence may have caused my car to break down, but in both of the above instances it didn’t strand me and actually went out of its way to see me to my destination. Maybe it feels bad for all the crap it gave me while it was still alive and is trying to make up for it in the afterlife. Maybe it’s holding my car together, Blues Brothers style, at least until I can get within paying range of a qualified mechanic. Maybe God sent it back, like some great big blue and rust-colored Della Reese, to become my car’s guardian angel. Or maybe blue Chevy’s just suck. Whatever the case, it’s almost… ALMOST… good to have it back.
Copyright © 2004 Eric Fritzius