Free Fiction: The Owner’s Guide to Home Repair
A few readers have asked if I’ve written anything besides THE RETURN MAN. The answer is “yes,” and just for fun, I thought I’d post some of my short horror fiction here on this blog for anyone who might be interested in weird, spooky stories.
The story below (or you can download it as a PDF) is unpublished. I wrote it about ten years ago but never submitted it anywhere; around that time, I happened to read an interview with a literary editor who said that writing stories in second-person point-of-view was amateurish. Red-faced, I banished this story to a remote folder on my computer. But, funny thing, every few years I pull it out and read it again, and ya know what? Each time, I still like it.
(Besides, it’s only sort of a variation on second person, sort of a meta-fiction piece written in the form of an instruction manual. Okay, whew, I’ve rationalized its existence.)
So… amateurish or not, here it is!
THE OWNER’S GUIDE TO HOME REPAIR, PAGE 238:
“WHAT TO DO ABOUT WATER ODOR”
V. M. ZITO
Turn the crystal knob on your kitchen faucet, and shut off the water. Step back. Wave the air in front of you, cough, snort, pinch your nose, do whatever you must to clear the repulsive stench clogging your nostrils as if you had inhaled rotten meat. Think of the dead crab you found when you were ten, its body washed to shore in Rhode Island, and you brought it home and kept it in an empty pickle jar all summer long, the crab’s shell turning dark and grey, crawling with ugly pink mites that scavenged the flesh, until one day in August you opened the jar. Compare that stink — choking, miserable, terrifying — to the odor here now, the same, coming from the water in your house.
Try the knob for the hot water. Repeat above.
Sniff your hands, flinch, wipe them on a dishtowel until they hurt. Wonder how long the stench will stick to your skin. Check the bathroom down the hall, and the one upstairs, open those faucets, now wring them closed, barricading yourself against the fumes rolling like invisible poison from the water. Run the bath, and discover the same.
Stop and think.
Consider the toilet. Push the handle so that the bowl empties, the water shrinks away, the water replenishes. Cringe at the odor filling the bowl, the room, your lungs again as you stifle the urge to vomit, the toilet waiting under you. Get out before this happens. Return to the kitchen, take the last clean glass from the cabinet, and fill it with a shot from the faucet. Hold the water to the light, and wonder how it can look so clear, so pure, when Christ it smells rancid. Pour it out, throw the glass in the garbage pail.
Notice how the rankness persists even when the faucets are off, as though once released it has permission to stay. Open windows. Spray cologne around the house like a rite of exorcism. Hold a cloth over your nose, hoping to filter out whatever impurity has invaded the air you breathe. Speculate why this makes you afraid.
Dig around your workbench in the basement until you find the book Margaret bought you for Christmas, The Owner’s Guide to Home Repair. Refer to Page 238 in the “Plumbing” chapter, which contains three paragraphs pertaining to water odor.
Follow these suggestions:
Call on your nearest neighbor, a retired old widower named Ellis who shares your public water supply and takes in your mail when you visit upstate New York every year. Ask him if he’s noticed any trouble with his water. Thank him when he checks and says No. Pretend to be interested in dinner some night, you, him and Margaret.
Remove the panels in your ceilings, room by room, and examine the pipes, spend hours hunting for old iron that may be a source of bacteria, the kind that stinks like death. Crinkle your nose at the stench in these crawl spaces, but find nothing that matches the descriptions and illustrations in your book, just smooth black PVC tubes slithering through walls and floors like huge headless snakes.
Decide you will not call a plumber to snoop around your house. Return the ineffective Owner’s Guide to Home Repair to its drawer in the basement.
Go without washing, so that your hands smudge, your fingernails darken, your body turns sticky and unpleasant.
Conclude that something is dead, that, somewhere in the belly of those PVC snakes winding through your house, a small animal has fallen prey, crawled through a drain or a corroded hole to die and decompose. Imagine a rat like this, twisted and slick and gooey like some awful melting candy, souring the water as the current runs through the clogged pipe and discharges like pus into your sinks and tubs and toilets. Take apart the panels in the ceiling again, begin a second sweep of the piping, this time examining every surface, every joint, every connection so closely it takes hours to satisfy yourself that there are no holes in the pipes. Make trip after trip to the hardware store, buying new pipes to replace any that warrant concern, any that appear weakened or crusty, any that you can possibly suspect as the source of decay. Replace them all, but find nothing unusual once you’ve taken them apart and peered inside.
Try the faucets again. Surrender finally to the nausea that has haunted you for days. Pour your sickness into the sink, the reeking water urging you on.
Call the public water authority. Tell them about the smell. Tell them you cannot live like this. Realize that the man on the phone is indifferent, that there is nothing he will do to help you, not when two thousand homes in your district share the same water source, and you are the only complaint.
Realize what this means.
Feel your heart strike, the abrupt spasm in your chest, your breath faster now.
Interrupt the man’s suggestions, the same useless ones you read in The Owner’s Guide to Home Repair, and ask for the exact source of your water, though of course you know the answer before he tells you, before the words bash your skull like a blow from the 18-inch cast iron wrench in your toolbox: Timber Lake Reservoir.
Think of Margaret. Think of her that night last month at the lake, in the blackness, splayed on the shore like the crab you found in Rhode Island.
Hang up on the man repeating Sir? Sir? and recall the drive in the darkness to Timber Lake, Margaret on the floor in your backseat, the trees black like prison bars as you pulled off the road and picked a path through the elms down to the water, Margaret in your arms, and the suitcase, the one you set down at the shore and filled with rocks, then Margaret. Remember how cold the water felt as you waded into the lake, towing the suitcase until you could go no farther without being pulled under, out where it was deep enough to push Margaret off inside her submarine coffin, sending her sinking and sliding down the slope of the lake floor to an untold resting place. Wish Margaret goodbye.
Imagine her now at the bottom of that reservoir, in the black muck and vile reeds, the suitcase water-logged and fallen apart, her corpse fat and half-devoured by fish, fizzing with decay — particles of death peeling away from her, set free into the water, into the supply, into the pipes, a funeral procession of stink and foulness, Margaret’s body coming home speck by speck in the currents.
Moan as the stench intensifies, burning your throat.
Moan in fear.
Lie in bed at night and listen to the pipes in your house moaning, too, the pressure mounting from god-knows-what, making them tremble and rattle and bang from inside the walls, the ceiling, the floor, above you, below you, next to you. Cover your ears, try to ignore it, now cover your nose and shake your head to dispel that unforgivable odor, the fury of the pipes, the memory. Detect a whisper, coming from your bathroom, what could be a trickle of water or could be her voice: Darling.
Deny it, deny it, you can’t.
Slip out of bed, stumbling, every footstep a bare white scream, force yourself to the bathroom. Flip on the light, look around you. Listen to the pipes tearing at the walls, the porcelain tiles wild with echo, the odor fiercer and fiercer, like a hand around your neck, dragging you to the shower stall.
Whimper, you pathetic thing. Throw open the curtain and step inside. Vomit, the odor so intense. Raise your dirtied face to the showerhead knocking and quaking above you, scream No no no but you must. Accept it all, the memory, the monstrous pounding of the pipes, the stench of slaughterhouses, reach out a hand and turn the water on.
Let her rush over you, hot and angry.