The Plumber

The Old Manse

I army-crawled under the house and point­ed my flash­light at the far cor­ner. Through the haze of gold­en dust motes and sil­ver spi­der web­bing, I saw the alu­minum duct lying on the ground. My goal was to reat­tach it to the bed­room floor-vent above it.

In my sum­mer job as a plumber’s helper, I’d crawled under hous­es before. Musty, filthy, insect-infest­ed, dark­er than a moon­less night, it was nev­er a pleas­ant expe­ri­ence, but the under­side of this ante­bel­lum manse was the worst so far. Since its con­struc­tion, the ground had shift­ed and the ancient floor joists had warped. In some places the clear­ance was less than six inches.

Slith­er­ing along on my bel­ly, I came to a joist that blocked my path. I scooped out a trough in the dirt, rolled over on my back, and scuffed for­ward. I pushed my head through, but my chest wouldn’t clear. Squirm­ing around, I got stuck so tight­ly I couldn’t move. Pinned like an insect on a poster board, I was fight­ing off claus­tro­pho­bic pan­ic when I heard a dry rustling sound to my left.

Alarmed, I cast my light in that direc­tion. A black snake lay coiled an arm’s length away, star­ing at me, its eyes glow­ing like lit­tle dia­monds, its tongue flick­ing in and out.

Mer­ri­am-Web­ster defines ophid­io­pho­bia as the “abnor­mal fear of snakes.” The genius who put the word “abnor­mal” in there obvi­ous­ly nev­er squared off against a snake under a house.

I tore all the flesh off my chest lurch­ing out from under that joist, set a land-speed record for a man crab-scut­tling on his back, and flopped through the crawl­space open­ing into the twi­light. After check­ing to make sure the black rac­er hadn’t fol­lowed me, I col­lapsed on the grass, my heart pound­ing as loud and fast as the ket­tle­drums in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Duct­work on New Construction

This all went down at the tail end of a long hard day. Weeks ear­li­er, the plumber, my boss, had land­ed a sub­con­tract installing air con­di­tion­ing sys­tems in a hous­ing devel­op­ment in Char­lottesville. He trained me to run the duct­work and rough-in the vents, then hired Gilly Fra­zier and told me to teach him to do what I did.

Among the hun­dreds of peo­ple I’ve worked with over my long life, Gilly ranked at the bot­tom in intel­li­gence. Six­teen years old, five-five and 120 pounds with flam­ing red hair and a freck­led face, he sport­ed a cast on his fore­arm his first day on the job. When I asked about it, he said his dad­dy took him and his broth­er, Floyd, to a wrestling match in Char­lottesville where some char­ac­ter named Mad Dog jumped off the ring’s turn­buck­le onto an oppo­nent lying flat

Mad Dog

on the mat. Floyd came up with the bright idea of reen­act­ing the match in their back­yard, where­upon he jumped off a fence post onto Gilly’s fore­arm, snap­ping it like a brit­tle stick. “Floyd’s a dum­b­ass,” Gilly said, dou­bling over in a fit of gig­gling, bliss­ful­ly unaware that the big­ger dum­b­ass might be the broth­er who lay still while Floyd’s size twelves came crash­ing down on his arm.

Gilly said he dropped out of school because it was a “waste a time. Don’t larn noth­in’. Cain’t fig­ger what they’s talkin’ ‘bout.” He couldn’t fig­ure what I was talk­ing about either. He for­got every­thing I told him before I could fin­ish telling him. With Gilly in tow, I had to work twice as hard to keep up with our pro­duc­tion schedule.

Floor Vent

Despite Gilly’s help, I’d fin­ished installing an AC sys­tem by quit­ting time that day when the plumber got an emer­gency call to repair the AC in an invalid’s bed­room in the old manse, drove us there, diag­nosed the prob­lem, and sent me under the house while he and Gilly wait­ed in the bed­room at the AC vent.

I was still stretched out on the grass try­ing to recu­per­ate from acute ophid­io­pho­bia when the plumber and Gilly walked up on me. In his late for­ties, short and paunchy, the plumber was a good guy, but he oper­at­ed on a tight bud­get and slow-downs on the job lit his short fuse. When he found me lying flat on my back in a cata­ton­ic stu­por on his nick­el, he exploded.

What the hell are you doing?” he boomed.

I strug­gled to my feet. “I ran into a snake under there,” I said defensively.

What hap­pened to your chest?” he said.

Tight Crawl­space

I looked down to see crim­son blood­stains on my t‑shirt and felt the sting of abra­sions for the first time. I told him what hap­pened. “There’s not enough clear­ance,” I said. “I couldn’t have made it to the duct even if the snake hadn’t showed up.”

The plumber’s tem­per usu­al­ly cooled as quick­ly as it flared. This blast fol­lowed the pat­tern. “Sor­ry I yelled at you. We’ll put dis­in­fec­tant on those cuts when we get home, but first we’ve got to find a way to fix the AC. Old man Wood­son can’t breathe in this heat.”

The plumber knelt and flashed his light in the crawl­space. “The snake’s gone, but you’re right about the clear­ance. You can’t make it back to the cor­ner.” He peered into the space for a while, then stood, and turned to Gilly. “It’s a tight fit, but you’re skin­ny enough to slip through.”

Gilly’s eyes widened. “It’s too dark,” he said.

Take my light.”

Gilly swal­lowed hard. “I cain’t do it.”

Don’t wor­ry about the snake. He’s long gone. They’re more afraid of us than we are of them.”

I ain’t scared a snakes.”

Good. Then crawl under there and fix the duct so we can go home.”

His face twitch­ing, Gilly backed away. “I don’t want to!”

The plumber’s tight-bud­get vol­cano erupt­ed. “The hell with what you want! I pay you to do what I want! Get under there! Now!”

It was obvi­ous where this was head­ed. In the month we’d worked togeth­er Gilly told me things he was ashamed to admit to most peo­ple. I knew why he couldn’t crawl under the house. I could tell the plumber and save Gilly’s job, but I’d car­ried him on my back like a dead body all day every day since he’d been hired. Stay out of it, I told myself.

I don’t think it was the tears slid­ing down Gilly’s freck­led cheeks that got to me. More like­ly, it was the cumu­la­tive effect of a string of tell-tale signs: a pur­plish healed-over scar above his eye I’d noticed his first day of work, a dis­col­ored knot on his fore­head that came and went a week lat­er, red marks that encir­cled his throat short­ly after that, and my grow­ing doubts about his plas­ter-cast story.

He’s afraid of the dark,” I said to the plumber.

Who asked you to butt in?” the plumber shout­ed, turn­ing on me.

Locked in the Closet

Gilly’s afraid of dark enclosed spaces,” I said even­ly. “He has vivid night­mares about being locked in a clos­et all night long.”

A look of con­cern came across the plumber’s tense face.

He dreams about that dark clos­et every night,” I said, giv­ing the plumber a long, know­ing look, hop­ing he’d pick up on my sus­pi­cion that Gilly’s night­mare wasn’t just a dream.

We both looked at Gilly. He kept his head down and said noth­ing. The plumber stared at him for a long time, then knelt down, and flashed his light under the house.

The duct’s on the ground right below the vent,” he said. “The line’s joints held togeth­er.” He looked up at me. “You think we can recon­nect it from the bedroom?”

I thought about it. “We should be able to reach it from above. If I can lift the line and nail the duct to the joists with­out the joints pulling apart, it’ll work.”

Give it a try.”

It worked.

The next day, the plumber assigned Gilly to the senior man on the AC sub­con­tract. A few days lat­er, he told the plumber Gilly was untrainable.

Hot on the Left

I thought the plumber would fire him then, but instead he put him on a job run­ning water lines and lay­ing sew­er pipe. Tra­di­tion­al plumb­ing is more straight­for­ward than heat­ing and air. Most of what you need to know springs off the trade’s three pri­ma­ry rules: “Hot on the left; cold on the right; and s*** don’t run uphill.” I hoped Gilly could catch on to it. When I left to return to UVA, he was hang­ing on to the job by his fingernails.

Three years lat­er, I ran into him at Wyant’s Store in White Hall. He still worked for the plumber and was liv­ing on his own in Brown’s Cove. I didn’t see any fresh tell-tale signs.

As I watched Gilly’s beat-up pick­up rat­tle off down the road to Crozet, I thought about the plumber pay­ing him good mon­ey he couldn’t spare week after week, refus­ing to give up on him, stub­born­ly deter­mined to unearth what­ev­er tal­ent lay buried deep down inside that sad kid.

It made no sense from a busi­ness stand­point, but like I said, the plumber was a good guy. Real­ly good.


Post Script: The fear of snakes is among the most com­mon of the 120 rec­og­nized pho­bias, afflict­ing 56 per­cent of adults, while Gilly’s fear of the dark, Nyc­to­pho­bia, and its first cousin, Claus­tro­pho­bia, each plague about 12 per­cent. Some extreme­ly rare pho­bias must be dif­fi­cult to cope with, like Bara­pho­bia, the fear of grav­i­ty; Omphalo­pho­bia, bel­ly but­tons; Opto­pho­bia, open­ing your eyes; and my per­son­al favorite, Hip­popo­tomon­strose­quipedalio­pho­bia, the fear of long words.