Scents of Springtime
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Ahh, spring, when a homeowner’s fancy turns to—the septic tank. Let me tell you folks, we at our house were living on borrowed time. Or borrowed plumbing, as it were. I mean, this was serious. We built the house almost eight—count ‘em, eight—years ago, and not once did we empty the septic tank. I don’t know why, really. I guess we just never really thought about it.

I started thinking about the septic tank when the poop pumper pulled up to my neighbors’ house recently and emptied their tank. My neighbors say you’re supposed to get it done every three years. I asked my husband, “Hey, have we ever had the septic tank emptied?”

“No,” he said, and we both promptly forgot about it. (Let me take this opportunity to point out that my husband is an engineer and is supposed to take care of this stuff. I can buy things, but I can’t fix them. That's his job.)

Maybe it’s because this is the only house we’ve had with a septic system, and it’s something that’s not always on our minds. This house is also the first place we’ve lived that was heated by oil, but for some reason, we just never thought about that (empty) oil tank down in the basement until we were jumping up and down, flapping our arms for warmth, while on the phone to the oil company at 6:00 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, begging for a delivery. (We’ve since signed up for auto delivery.)

You’d think we’d have learned by now.

Then we began experiencing a sudden rash of toilet clogs in the house. At first, it would happen only when one certain kid used a bathroom, so, of course, we were blaming him. “What are you eating? Buzzard?” The kid looked at me, frowned and said, “No.” (Like it was ever an option.)

Soon the toilets started clogging left and right. The kids were denying responsibility and, of course, we didn’t believe them, so we sarcastically started blaming the cat. “Well, who did it? Was it the cat? Did the cat come up and do it? Darn that Winkie, clogging the toilet again!” Winkie the cat remained unfazed, as did the children.

But fear kicked in again. “You know,” I said to my husband, “We really should get the septic tank emptied. I don’t know why, but I suddenly have a bad feeling—like if we don’t, something really, really bad is going to happen.” He agreed and asked me to call the neighbors to find out who they used to pump their tank. Then he made The Call, which brought us some relief, but we were still living on the edge because the septic cleaner couldn’t come for another two weeks. For all we knew, anything could happen in two weeks. We began rationing toilet paper. “One sheet! One sheet is all you get!” It was like living in the Great Depression.

Finally, the big day arrived. As I was washing the kitchen floor, the septic truck pulled into our driveway and shortly thereafter the front doorbell rang. I opened the door to find an unassuming, Adam Sandler-ish guy, with a suspicious brown stain on the knee of his pants, standing on my stoop. He greeted me eagerly with a sunny hello, flashed a bright smile and asked me if I was having any trouble with my septic system. I said I didn’t think so, but explained that I thought we were having an inordinate amount of toilet clogs. “Okay!” he said. “Hey, there are screws in the top of that septic cover and I don’t have a screwdriver in my truck. Would you happen to have one?”

“Yeah, I think so.” I went to the kitchen and retrieved all the screwdrivers I had from the toolbox my family gave me for Christmas one year, thoughtful bunch that they are. (They really got it for me because my husband doesn’t want me using his tools.) I returned to the front door and held out the screwdrivers so the septic guy could choose his weapon.

“Hey, thanks!” he said, selecting the biggest screwdriver. A remarkably cheery guy, given his line of work.

I went back to washing the kitchen floor. The septic truck roared to life, scattering my three little dogs like chickens, and the pumping began. It went on. And on. And on. And the dogs barked. And barked. And barked. Believe you me, I was the envy of the neighborhood, what with the odoriferous stench of my septic tank wafting through the trees for all to enjoy.

After a time the front doorbell rang again, and Septic Tank Guy stood there once more. “Well,” he said, “Your filter was clogged.”

I didn’t know what I was supposed to say to that, so I said, “Oh. Okay.”

“That made the water level rise in the tank,” he told me.


“So do you want me to stop pumping at 1200 gallons, or do you want to do the 1500 gallons?” He looked at me expectantly.

Blink. Blink. “Um, what do you think? We’ve never had it emptied, and it’s been over seven years.” I told him.

“It’s up to you,” he said. “But, wow. Going seven years is kind of unheard of.”

Of course it was. “Well, pump it all out,” I said. “Don’t leave it there.” Gads.

“Okay,” Mr. Sunshine Septic Man said gaily. After going into a detailed, informative explanation about the intricacies of the toilets and the septic system, he went back to work, calling over his shoulder, “I’ll let you know if I find anything else.”

“You do that,” I said, and returned to my kitchen floor.

A short time later the septic truck fell silent and Septic Man was at my door again. “Well,” he said. “I have a little bit of bad news.”

Oh, jeez. Can you have a “little bit” of bad news when it comes to your septic system? “Hit me,” I said, bracing myself for the worst.

“Well, you see, with most septic systems, when we get to the bottom we usually find three feet of water and one foot of sludge.”

Sludge, He’s talking about sludge. I looked at him blankly.

“But in your case,” he continued, “It’s the reverse. You have one foot of water and three feet of sludge.” In my case.

I stood at the top of the front stairs, helpless against the septic man. He must have felt bad for me because he said, “Here, why don’t you come on down and I’ll show you what I’m talking about.”

No! I screamed silently.

“C’mere. Come on. C’mere,” he prompted, like we were going to look at a litter of cute little puppies. I went to the front lawn and stood four feet from the hole, holding my breath and feigning interest. “Oh, yeah,” I said, craning my neck and pretending to peer into the hole.

“Come around this way and you can see better what I’m talking about,” he said, gesturing.

No! Don’t make me! This is not my job! I just happened to be home! Just clean it! I don’t want to look at it!

I gave up, moved to the other side of the redolent hole and peered down, amazed at how long I could hold my breath.

“There’s a lot of solids in there,” Septic Man said, serious as all get-out. No kidding. Seven years of solids. “You gotta wait until the tank is half-full, about four or five days, then call me and I’ll come and pump it again.”

Oh, my God.

“I’ll tell my husband,” I said, handing him a check. Just go away.

“Yeah. Have him take the cover off and look at it.”

“Oh, I most certainly will,” I promised. And I would. There is no way my husband is getting out of this whole septic thing unscathed. If I had to smell it, then he had to smell it. Septic Guy wished me a “great day!” and went merrily on his way. I returned to the house to call my husband at work. I told him about the filter being clogged and the guy having to return.

“Well, did he change the filter?” my husband inquired.

“Hey, I don’t know. How am I supposed to know whether he changed the filter?” I snapped.

“We paid him to change the filter,” he pointed out.

“Hey, you know, I didn’t sign up to have to make these kinds of decisions.” I was getting irritated.

My husband sighed. "They're supposed to change the filter."

“Look, I shouldn’t be supervising the cleaning of septic systems, the same way I shouldn’t be dealing with car mechanics or repairmen. I don’t know what I’m talking about. This guy could tell me anything. How the hell would I know? I wouldn’t know. That’s why you have to look at it in four to five days.” This whole septic business was keeping me from my nap, and I was not happy.

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll look at it.”

Oh, indeed you will, I vowed.

I have the screwdriver ready.

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