The text came on Labor Day, while we were driving home from Pittsburgh: a sharp-eyed neighbor had spotted a cataract pouring out from under the back door. We called him, other neighbors, the police to turn off the water supply, a plumber, then we could only keep driving and wondering. I distracted myself with a fat stack of poems I have to read for an editorial project. Chris considered what might have gone wrong, where the water would be, what would be salvageable. What about the cat? one of us asked. (Turned out she was defecating on our bed, right in the middle by our pillows, because she considers us equally to blame.)
Our house is about a hundred years old, except for a two-story addition someone put up thirty years later: downstairs a mudroom, laundry room, bath; upstairs a small fourth bedroom where my son has slept for eleven of his almost twelve years. Sometime over the weekend, the pipe that led to the upstairs bathtub broke deep inside the wall between the addition and our kitchen. Water filled up that wall like a sponge, soaked upwards through the pine floorboards, pooled an inch or two deep in some places, and poured out and down every way it could—through ceilings, along nearby walls and jambs, through hardwood into the basement, through the drier’s lint trap, out the damn back door. One unlucky thing: we renovated the kitchen two years ago, had beautiful hickory cabinets built and the floor refinished, and some of that work is damaged.
Within the context of total crap luck, though, there’s a lot of good fortune. None of our papers or photographs were damaged; it struck me while teaching the poetry of Katrina last winter how much it hurts people to lose those irreplaceable things. The water missed the good rugs and most of our belongings, too. The builder of the cabinets will oversee their restoration. Kind neighbors fed us dinner and let us use their washing machine. A company that specializes in dealing with water and fire damage (who knew such an art even existed?) has filled our house with roaring fans and dehumidifiers and floor pads that perform some mysterious drying function; the snaking tubes and constant din are awful to live around, but they’re working. We’ll be fine. The insurance will even pay for a hotel while the kitchen floor is fixed, sanded, and refinished next week (lord knows what we’ll do with the cat), and after that, the worst will be over. We wouldn’t have planned to remodel that addition during the busiest part of the teaching year, but what the hell; it needed doing anyway, and it’s demolished now. Yesterday they found fragments of the Richmond Times-Dispatch in the walls dated September 5th, 1940. The sheetrock of the era was apparently made with horsehair.
Don’t tell us we’re lucky if you meet us on the street, though; we’re sleeping badly, the kids can’t concentrate at school, and the toaster’s on the front porch. The machine noise and mess make us all feel constantly hysterical. I’ve been shaken up about changes at work and now home isn’t a haven either. I don’t know how I’m going to get through my first class of term today—I’m technically ready but not really thinking straight. Just look at me funny and I’ll crumble like water-logged horsehair walls.
My friend Rosemary Starace was the first to observe that Heathen (then in ms) is full of underground streams and hidden channels. I’m not sure why they’re such a potent metaphor for me, but I’m still fascinated by moving water and by secrets. At the time I connected those references to my father, a water treatment engineer who also served in the Navy in World War II. This summer began with his funeral by the Delaware River; a super-derecho smashed through, though I guess the damage to our house (still unrepaired!) was caused more by wind than water; we waded for a few weeks through Ireland’s rainiest summer on record; and now our walls are weeping. Water, water, everywhere is driving me to drink. Maybe I’m just being superstitious, but that nice dry autumn equinox can’t come soon enough.