Sister Speare and the Sunk Sump Pump


Thirty years later, I’m not quite certain what a sump does. Dolores Speare called my mother one day, and asked if I could dig it out. The sump pump had sunk. Really. That’s what she said. She told Mom it was filled with leaves, probably, and was beginning to stink, and she could hardly get any water into the house. It is ironic, being in a rain forest, and Frank’s and Dolores’s home being about 20 yards from Pistol River, that they couldn’t get water to their house. This was a continual battle for every family I knew, who lived out in the country. Water would go out, and we’d be fiddling around in the pouring rain, in the dark, with a flashlight and a screwdriver, cleaning out muck-filled hoses up on a crumbling mountainside.

Dolores’s driveway had overrun with whippy twigs of willow, and newly-grown patches of red alder, and older fruit trees. Everything where here car wasn’t parked had been consumed by a healthy snarl of blackberry brambles. I would have to prune these back before I could even begin to reach the sump. Somewhere, not far from the house was rust-colored burn-cone, falling apart. Most of the country sawmills had been gone since well before my birth but cones still dotted the Oregon countryside. I never explored one or climbed up inside. They looked like a rusted=out volcano with a screen on top, to keep cinders from flying out and setting the whole country on fire. The old millworkers used to throw lumber scraps and who-knows-what-else into it. I really wanted to look over the old millsite, but soon the sump was recalled to my mind. It was going to rain soon. “Do a good job,” my mother admonished me, “and maybe she’ll call you back for more work.”

It was a big hole, dug in the sand. That’s all. So, a sump was just a well. I wondered why the grown-ups just say well? It smelled like old fish guts, and was so deep I needed a tall ladder to climb down. I had no company but a couple slimy newts that had made their way down to lay eggs in Sister Speare’s source water.  It reminded me of a bumper sticker I once saw on the back of someone’s Jeep, even though my mother thought I hadn’t noticed it: “Don’t drink water: Fish fuck in it.” Crude, but I snorted nonetheless at the thought. The sump was deeper than even the earthworms dared to dig. Maybe they were afraid of being drowned out, so they never came there. At the bottom was an electric pump, attached to a long hose and the cord that powered the thing. It sucked water out and brought it to the house. A large wooden box covered in wire mesh attached itself to the intake pipe. The box had been blocked by leaves. I was going to get very, very wet, and I wasn’t looking forward to this.

Sister Dolores  Speare must have been unable to keep the place tidy after Frank’s death. He was a stubby, gray flannel pork-roast of a man, and he attended our church faithfully, arm-in-arm with his very well-turned-out wife, until the day Mom told me he had died. It was a heart attack, or a stroke or something: one of those sudden life-ending moments that takes a person away from you before you’ve had a chance to say goodbye, and leaves you wishing you’d kept those last few sharp comments unsaid. His was to be my first funeral. Mom decided I was old enough to attend one, and it was better I learned funerary etiquette on a stranger, before someone I loved died and I made a spectacle of myself.

How do you behave at the funeral of a stranger? Well, you sit quietly, and sing what’s to be sung, just like a church service, only there’s a dead body in front of the pulpit at the church. In Frank’s case, the casket was opened, and we were invited for a viewing, to say our goodbyes. We were to gaze respectfully at the gentleman. I asked mom if I was supposed to kiss his corpse? I heard Aunt Janet had kissed Aunt Fanny when she passed away. This seemed disgusting to my eleven-year-old mind. No. Just stand silently, say goodbye in your mind. Maybe, if you feel inspired, put a flower in his casket. But you definitely did not, under any circumstances, kiss Frank. I loved my mother more than ever, in that moment.

The funeral came soon. I did as I was required, sitting more than halfway back in the church, although I wanted to sit closer, to see the body. Where I sat, if I craned my neck, I could see Frank’s nose sticking out from the opened half of the casket. I wondered if, when they closed it, his nose would be crushed flat, or if they’d have to chop it off so he’d fit inside the coffin. We sang our songs, and heard our sermon, and said our goodbyes. Dolores led the line of mourners who were to gaze over what was left of Frank. She stood, tearless, for a few seconds, and walked back to her seat.

Soon, it was my turn. I gazed at him. He was in one of his suits, and his skin looked like he’d been made of wax. His eyes were closed, and mouth shut firmly. His eyebrows looked like a shaving brush, but his hair was neat and slick; too neat, I thought. Only dead people would have their hair looking that nice. Only the top half of the coffin was opened. Apparently it split down the middle, because nobody wanted to see a dead man’s legs. I wondered about the reason: maybe the undertaker did this, so if the body was too long for the coffin, he could chop his legs off at the knees. I knew this wouldn’t be a worry for Frank’s stubby little body but, I thought, what if the funeral home felt just a little creepy, or didn’t like him? I imagined his dismembered legs, lying in there, strewn  pantsless and upside down, hack-sawed from his body. When I was sufficiently grossed out, I returned to the pew.

We followed the slow procession out to the graveyard. Next to a huge lump of dirt, covered with a cloth, the coffin sat on a stand made from brass. The whole thing looked pretty nice. I knew coffins cost a lot of money. I couldn’t imagine the funeral home not wanting to reclaim the thing. Why bury such a nice piece of furniture (nicer than anything in our home in fact), in the dirt? There were two creepy looking guys leaning against a backhoe, a few hundred yards from the scene. One smoked a cigarette, and the other was commenting about something that made the other laugh. I knew they were there to bury Frank, after the crowd left. With a backhoe? It seemed rather impersonal but why not? Brother Speare certainly wouldn’t care one way or the other. One of the guys had a big white truck. I imagined that once they slid the body out of the coffin, straight into the hole, they’d haul it right back to the funeral home, to be swabbed clean of blood and fluids, for the next dead guy to come along.

After the service, I turned to scrawny Dolores, and hugged her like she was a dear old aunt. She began to sniffle, and then cry in genuine. I held her until I was dismissed, but I felt exquisitely awkward, and wanted to be away from her arthritic, gnarled hug as soon as possible. I didn’t say any of this to anyone of course. She was no uglier or more gnarled than any of the other aged, widowed women around Pistol River (and there were dozens). Most of them, however, didn’t sniffle, and none of them would wipe their noses on my shoulder. But I believe this act of kindness, and my momentary, embarrassing hug, that  made her call my mother, and had me digging out Frank’s sump.

So there I was, a few months later. I dug and sweated for a few hours in the cold gray Oregon sump. I used a tall shovel to fill a gallon bucket with muck, climbed the ladder and dumped the contents into the trees. Then I’d climb down again for another bucket full of leafy silt and goo. I wondered what would happen if there were a sudden flood. Would I die down there? The shovel kept banging the mud walls of the sump, and made it very difficult to fill the bucket. It was cloudy outside, started to rain. Now, instead of just my legs being wet, I was soaked through to the skin. I couldn’t feel my feet, and was afraid I’d slam the shovel blade into a foot , and chop off my toes. A better boy than I probably would have done a decent job. I, however, was not a better boy. In fact, I wanted no part of this old lady and her dirty, silt-filled well. I wanted to go home and watch cartoons.

After a couple hours of not-so-diligent toil, I climbed up out of the hole, asked Dolores to ring up my mother, and have her come get me. “Would you like a cup of chocolate?” she asked me. She invited me into her home, or at least the kitchen, where I could warm up and get out of the rain. I stood there, hands shaking slightly, gripping the mug of chocolate for balance. We made small talk, and at length, my mother arrived, rescuing me from the biddy and her smelly sump. “Did you do a good job?” my mother asked. I nodded, feeling the lie clog the words in my throat. I went home, soggy, grouchy, and never ever wanting to see Dolores again.

A few days later, my mother picked up the telephone and said it was for me. I never got phone calls, so I was surprised. Even when someone asked me to mow their lawn, or trim their bushes, they’d make the deal through Mom. She’d just relay the information from whichever old woman wanted me to do whatever chore. “No,” Mom said. “She asked to speak directly to you.” So I picked up the handset.

“Brian?”

“Yes?”

“I seem to be almost out of water here in my home.”

I thought of being silent. I thought of hanging up. Blood rushed to my ears.

“I was wondering if you could come over and help me out. It seems that a lot of leaves, or something, has managed to get into the sump, and now the water is moving quite slow, and is very silty.”

“Okay,” I replied lamely. “I’ll come fix it.”

“I’m sure it’s not your fault. Sometimes things like this happen. You’re a good boy, and a hard worker. It’s probably just some leaves.”

“Yes,” I said. “Thank you. I’ll see how soon Mom can bring me over.”

“The sooner the better.”

“Okay. Goodbye.”

“Goodbye.”

My mother asked what Dolores wanted. Then, as if to heap coals on my burning guilt, Mom praised me for doing such an excellent job that Sister Speare wanted me back to do even more chores. Repeat business, and satisfied customers. That’s what makes you lots of money, she told me. I was shocked. Had I fooled them both? My mother thought I was starting my own little sump-cleaning business? Dolores certainly hadn’t been fooled. She had no water. She was showing something I’d never understood to this point in my life. It was grace she was manifesting. She could have called and complained to my mother about the horrible job I did. She could have never said a word, and called one of a half-dozen other Pistol River adolescent toe rags. But she called me, and offered a second chance. She never once mentioned to me, or to anyone else, that it was probably my fault.

Thirty minutes later, I was in my sneakers (still-wet from my last climb into the sump), and was at the bottom of the thing, digging to bedrock. It was humiliating to be caught doing a bad job; even more so to be forgiven for it. Each pull of the bucket seemed to wash away the idea that my sins were unforgivable. I did a much better job the second time, and we began to talk after the job. At length, she invited me to do more things around the house.  Trim the bushes, cut the grass, rake twigs and leaves. She was raised in Florida, in a family who spoke Castilian (not “deplorable” North American) Spanish. She was adopted, and never knew her real family. Dolores means “Pains” or “hurts” in Spanish. Learning is the most important thing, she said. Always learn, and keep learning, but no, she wouldn’t teach me Spanish. It had been too long, she smiled.

One day, she invited me into her parlor, which was filled with books. She gave me one of her favorites: Of Mice and Men. Read, she told me. Always keep reading. So I took home, and read the Steinbeck classic. She said “Every young boy should read it.” Why? I wondered. She started giving me Frank’s clothes. She wanted me to try them on. A young man should be well-dressed, she said. Even at twelve, Frank was far shorter and rounder than I was. The pants would have fit a barrel, and my arms stuck out six inches beyond the end of his old coats. She fed me, and patted me on the shoulder, and told me what a good boy I was. I realized how lonely it must be to grow old, and without a family nearby, and nobody to clear the leaves from the grill that protects your sump. I was a surrogate son in her old age, the one she showed enormous grace.

Years later, Steinbeck spoke to me. I wasn’t locked into a single role. I had the body of big, dumb Lennie, and the soul of withered, nasty Curley. She made me feel as loved as Slim, and smart as George. Eventually, she was moved to the Good Samaritan Home in Brookings (where all elderly people from Pistol River seem to end up). She died fifteen years later. I wonder who took care of her after I left Curry County. I wonder who looked in on her, and reminded her that youth still existed, and hope was always present, and that Dolores need not be alone? I still have that copy of Steinbeck’s novel that she gave me, more than 30 years ago. I passed it on to my son, where I recently noticed it sitting on the shelf above his desk. I wonder who will eventually be the Dolores in his life, who will inevitably him the moment of grace that none of us deserves? We all need that. It’s a world-changing experience.

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