Wednesday, February 26, 2014
“Ned Stark is missing,” Jenna tells me over coffee.
“Who?” I ask, barely glancing up from the morning paper. Sad to say after twelve years of marriage, but the political cartoons capture my attention more than Jenna’s weak attempts at conversation.
“Ned Stark. He’s lived next-door for ten years.”
“Oh,” I mutter, uninterested. But I can see she’s trying here, so I humor her by continuing with, “is he the bald guy with the crooked nose?”
“Yup. But you forgot the gold tooth.”
That’s right. Ned Stark has this tawdry gold cap where one of his two front teeth should reside. An unsightly fellow, Ned has a face that some might argue not even a mother could love.
Ned is a bit of a gearhead from what I can recall about him. Cars are his only passion I’m familiar with. The faster, the louder, the better. On his days off, you can see him blowing through the neighborhood in a yellow turbo-charged Mustang.
That’s all I can say about old Ned. I’ve barely said more than ten words to the guy since we moved here. If you added up all our conversations, the time would amount to the length of a TV infomercial.
“What do you think happened to him?” I ask, continuing the conversation for Jenna’s sake.
“I don’t know,” she shrugs, sipping her decaf. “I feel awful for what he did to Mr. Bennett’s cat. Ran the poor thing down a week ago with that Mustang of his. He needs to learn a car is not a toy.”
“Try teaching that to any man,” I chuckle.
Shelly, our daughter, comes rushing into the kitchen, pinching her nose together with two fingers like a clothespin. “Dad, you need to check the bathroom, now.”
Never a day off for Gary Hoffman, I think. I excuse myself from the table and walk to the bathroom, where the pungent stench hits me like a kick in the teeth.
I already know what the problem is. The septic tank is backing up. I can see it bubbling up from the drain of the bathtub, as if the horrendous smell wasn’t any indication.
“What is it, Gar?” Jenna calls from the kitchen.
“The septic is full and it’s backing up into the downstairs bathtub,” I call back from the bathroom.
“That’s impossible. We had the cesspool drained six months ago. I marked it down on the calendar.”
She’s right. I remember calling the cesspool company and arguing with the guy for twenty minutes over the ridiculous six-hundred dollar fee. “I’ll check the septic tank before we call anybody. Maybe it’s just clogged or something.”
Outside, a cool pleasant breeze blows through my hair. It’s a gorgeous spring day, and as the birds fill the air with their chirps, the sun beams down in blinding rays. But after the miserable winter we had, I’ll take blinding sunlight and mellow breezes over mounds of snow any day of the week.
I lift the wood panel off the deck and use a crowbar to snag the handle of the cement cover of the septic tank. Hoisting it up, I can see the tank is not nearly full. Not even half full.
Something is blocking the pipes and causing the backup. It’s too big to be an animal.
As I lean closer to get a better look, my hand cupped over my nose and mouth, the sun exposes a small hunk of gold that sparkles in the light.
“Ned,” I try to say, but it escapes as a harsh whisper.
I hear footsteps and turn to see Jenna approaching. With all my strength, I lift and drop the cement cover back into place. “Are you ok?” she asks. “You look really pale. I hope you’re not getting sick on me. Did you figure out the problem?”
“I’m afraid so…”