Around 1 a.m. the dog starts barking and won't stop. Finally I get out of bed and find hot steaming water spreading over the linoleum from the kitchen to a hole in the floor by the front door, where it pours down to the termites and fungus below. The water heater has burst. The dog felt it was worthy of note.
Unclothed and groggy in the kitchen I search for a way to shut off the water and find none. Out behind the house I turn off the valve for the entire cabin. Back in the kitchen I can find no shutoff for the gas, so unclothed and groggy I return outside with a Crescent wrench and turn it off out there. Then back to bed.
It's a rental, a Montgomery Ward cabin on the verge of collapse. Not my problem. In the morning the landlady calls Jim the Plumber.
These are the days of redneck/hippie wars, so I'm cautious as Jim arrives in his truck. More cautious when I see the American eagle tattoo on the back of his hand.
Jim greets me with clear eyes and an honest smile. "How ya doin'?" he asks, taking off his denim jacket and draping it on the steering wheel. Immediately he makes friends with my dog, a semi-German Shepherd who is skeptical of strangers. "What's his name?"
They have an affinity, Jim and Quinn.
"One of these guys saved my life once," Jim says, scratching the dog's chin. "Lost his."
"Aw, it ain't nothin'." Jim looks away toward the cow pasture across the street. When he looks back at me, his eyes are clear, his smile is genuine. "Let's get to work."
Jim doesn't mind if I watch. In fact, he enjoys the company.
The old heater sat unbraced on a wobbly floor next to the old gas stove. "You're lucky this tank didn't topple over and kill ya," Jim says.
We're friends by now. Jim's an affable man. He likes the fact that I want to learn about plumbing; I like that he uses the word "topple". That, and his Okie accent. He seems so comfortable in his job. Unlike me, Jim has found his slot in the world and seems happy to be there.
"If it don't land on ya, it breaks the gas line." Jim glances at the cabin. "Three minutes, max, this shack is a ball of flame." For just a moment, Jim seems to flinch.
He replaces the 20 gallon heater with a 30 gallon model and straps it to the wall with metal plumber's tape. He replaces the old, rigid, copper gas tubing with flexible brass. "Useta be we got clean gas from down around L.A. Now it’s from Texas and it leaves junk in the pipe. Texas gas eats the copper. Some chemical reaction." He shakes his head as if longing for the old days. He must be about my age, which is 26.
Jim installs 3 safety valves we'd lacked before: gas shutoff, water shutoff, and Pressure Temperature Relief valve. "If it's worth doin', it's worth doin' right," he says. "Musta been a moron installed that old thang."
"I think it was the landlady's husband."
"Well, hush my mouth."
As a last act, he cleans up with a paper towel. “If my daddy saw me leave a job with fingerprints on the heater, he’d be rollin' in his grave.”
I help Jim load the old heater in the back of his truck. Among the toolboxes are 3 empty whiskey bottles.
At the cab, Jim reaches to the dashboard, then tosses half a ham sandwich to the dog. Stenciled on the door are the words:
Removing the jacket from the steering wheel, Jim shrugs it over his shoulders. On the back of the denim is a fiery painting and the words:
Jim gets behind the wheel. Quinn stands on hind legs, forelegs on the driver's window. A hand reaches out, rubs the dog's ears.
When I die I know I'll go to Heaven
I've already been to Hell
Khe Sanh 1968
"Peace to ya, Quinn," Jim says. Then he's off to the next job.