by Noelle Wall The hole is getting bigger. I can hear it, the sawing, the jackhammering, and even the digging, though the bite of the shovel and the thwump of the damp dirt as it hits the floor may be more in my imagination than in my ears. What I do know, what has nothing to do with imagination, is the sight of growing piles of dirt in my garage, dirt in brown clay clumps rising to a point four feet high, on one, then two, then three blue tarps.
It was supposed to be a two–day job, I explain to Grant in an email, but now it has expanded to ten days, with no end in sight. Today, Jimmy the plumber rose from the hole, where he had been tunneling beneath the utility room to the pipes below, to say he had found the problem. My husband Tom reports his discovery as though it were good news, but I know better.
“I thought the problem was the pipe,” I remind Tom. The only reason we approved this excavation was because the plumber’s snake–camera thingy told him our old copper pipe was crushed and disintegrated. And that was why the toilet wouldn’t flush and the shower was backing up shit all over the downstairs bathroom floor.
“It was the trap,” Tom tells me. “The trap was clogged with grease, but he’s going to replace it.”
“What about the crushed pipe?”
“He replaced the pipe.”
“The crushed pipe? Did you see it?” I ask. He knows I would ask.
“Well, it turns out, it wasn’t actually crushed,” Tom admits, “but it’s good we have the new pipe, anyway. It’s four–inch plastic pipe, instead of three, and it should be fine for another 30 years.”
My fa lived in this house for 30 years, and this is the first time we’ve had a problem with the plumbing. What he’s saying is that we’ll be underground ourselves, long before it clogs again.
Why didn’t you just have it roto–rootered out, Grant asks me via text. I am asking myself the same thing. In fact I bring it up with Tom, who asks the plumber.
“Nah, couldn’t do that; it wouldn’t go through the trap.” The plumber says this confidently, an expert on handling sticky questions.
The plumber has other jobs waiting, so he stays late to finish; it will be done tonight, tomorrow at the latest. The dirt sits in three still piles, seeping damp into the concrete floor.
The next night Grant messages me, asking if the plumbing is all fixed. In fact, it’s not. Jimmy has to jackhammer out more floor, go deeper to get at the trap. He stands in the hole, waist–high and shows me where he estimates the trap is, under the hot water heater, which will have to be removed. The removal will probably render it unusable (something about the sediment), so we will need a new one. He suggests a tankless style, energy efficient at about $1200 plus installation.
“Who are you texting?” Tom asks.
“Messaging,” I correct. “It’s Grant. He wants to know if we are worried the hole will swallow us up.”
“What did you tell him?”
“That I’m terrified.”
We are watching TV in the family room, while below us Jimmy gathers his tools for the night. He’ll be back in the morning, but I’m no longer surprised; no longer do I ask. Two days have grown to two weeks, and he’s still down there every day. His presence, the holes, the dirt, the inaccessible laundry room while the dirty clothes pile up, the cars at the end of the driveway instead of in the garage––it’s all part of the new normal. I don’t like it, but there it is, out of my control. Just as I seek refuge or respite in certain areas of the house––the kitchen window where I can view the upturned faces of my yellow and purple pansies smiling happiness from their baskets on the deck, or the stretch of hallway where Tom’s photos hang in perfect gallery presentation, so I avoid all sign of the plumbing project. With it out–of–sight, I’m able to temporarily put it out–of–mind. I avoid the garage, won’t look at the dirt or the hole, now grown to seven feet long, three feet wide, larger than a grave.
Tom’s phone signals an incoming text. It’s from Grant.
“You better protect my sister,” he writes.
Tom laughs, and I smile smugly. But inside, my heart is racing. A month ago I didn’t have a brother, or more accurately, a half–brother. In a flush of interest in our heritage after my parents died, I took one of those DNA tests that tell you where your ancestors are from. We had just discovered, in going through my father’s papers, that the German man we thought was my father’s father was actually his step–father, and that his biological father had died in the flu epidemic, shortly after immigrating to America from Greece. Suddenly we were no longer Irish–German, but were Irish–Greek. My sister, Bartan, and I joked about our new understanding of our love of baklava, I spit in a tube and off went the test.
Weeks went by; the test came back, and another shock. We were surprised to discover that our grandfather Kostas was not actually Greek, but Ashkenazi Jewish. Mazel Tov. We were reborn again: brisket and latkes. We belong to a tribe. While I rejoice at life’s clever trickery, Bartan laments her loss of identity.
“I don’t know who I am anymore,” she says. “I grew up German, then I was Greek and now I’m Jewish. What next?”
What was next is Grant. Months go by, and then my granddaughter calls. She too has done the DNA test. Who is Grant Westerson, she wants to know and I have no idea.
“Well, what does it say on your DNA test?”
“Huh? I only checked my heritage.” So, she walks me through the links on the website––who shares your DNA?-–I unlock my identity, and there are the words: Grant Westerson is your half–brother. The room falls away; I drop the phone; a choking sound bubbles up in my throat.
“Grandma, are you alright? I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have––” My angel of a granddaughter is concerned, so I take a breath and reassure her.
“It’s okay, Honey. It’s––” I pause, not wanting to speak it aloud, the words unreal, toxic. “It’s okay; he’s my brother.”
It takes a rush of emails and more tests to wade through his reluctance and ours, each step like moving through glue in order to piece together the likely circumstances. For all our parents are gone, and we will never know the details. We find out that his mother was a stenographer in my father’s office. They were both married to other people. Grant grew up believing the man his mother was married to was his father. He doesn’t want to believe otherwise, but we knew our father, and we believe. Sort of. Did his mother know? Did my father know? Who are we now, Bartan and I, now that we are Irish–Greek Jews with a brother?
The discovery spreads through the family, speculation growing from email to message to text, the tale a comical paean to sex; we are a sitcom, a romcom, daughters who grew up in a Mad Men world with a Don Draper dad. I wonder if he slept with one of my aunts; Kelly wonders if he slept with all of them.
We try to slot the information into a punchline. Our brother always liked you better, my sister texts, and I reply that she shouldn’t have teased him so much when he was little. She still hasn’t communicated with him, though she friends him on Facebook. His face peers out from his cover photo, and we try to see our father’s eyes, his nose, but the face is unfamiliar, a stranger. He and I exchange birthdates. We were born six months apart. For some reason, this is the fact that won’t compute, the one I can’t think about, the one I stick in a box and seal away.
I don’t know how to connect with Grant. I can’t imagine his pain, and I feel ashamed. I’m ashamed for my father, the man who sang Broadway songs while making our pancakes on Sunday morning, who chugged beer bare–chested while building our patio, who showed off his New York City office as though he owned it. The father who terrified me with his rage when he found out I was having sex with my high school boyfriend. Bartan reminds me of the nights he came home drunk, the shallow lies about working late, the fights with our mother. The DNA test gives confirmation of what she suspected, what I buried. If it’s hard for us, what is it like for Grant? He lost the father he thought he had, and he will never know the man whose DNA he shares. I wish I’d never taken the test. My mother was six months pregnant with me, when my brother was born.
At lunch in our favorite café, my closest friend assails me with what ifs. What if our parents were still alive? What if my family hadn’t moved away when I was a toddler? What if we had grown up in the same town, gone to the same schools, dated? I shake my head and change the subject, pay the bill, head home.
As I park at the head of the driveway, I see Jimmy packing up his truck. It’s old and rusted; he is filthy, a lanky Art Carney look–alike in a stained, once white wife–beater.
“You heading out?” I call as I walk up the steps to the front door.
“See you tomorrow.”
“Nope, I’m done.”
“Done?” It’s been nearly three weeks. I’m so used to Jimmy being there, digging and tunneling and banging, somehow he had become a subterranean part of the household, like a cat or rodent living under the house. I never really accepted his presence, but neither did I expect him to ever leave.
“Done, filled in, cleaned up and on my way.”
I follow him into the garage and the utility room. The hot water heater is installed, the grave is covered with cement, the dirt is gone, the floor mopped. The shower will run now, he tells me, the toilet will flush––heck we could flush a basketball down it now.
I don’t know what else to say, so I thank him, but I still have doubts. After he drives away, I open all the taps, flush the upstairs, then the downstairs toilets. Everything works. Everything’s back to normal, to the way it was before, before the dirt, before the hole, before the clog. It’s as though he’d never been there. And yet, he was. About the Author:Noëlle Wall’s background is in advertising and television, though writing is her first love. She is an alumna of the New York State Writers Institute at Skidmore College, and a member of the Hudson Valley Writers Guild and Fiction Group. Her short story, Secrets, won first place in the New Millennium Writings Short Story Contest. She recently completed her first novel, Flesh and Bone, about a young woman’s quest to discover the secret that haunted her grandfather and endangers her life. Noëlle lives in the Hudson Valley with her husband, the photographer, Tom Wall.