by Annabelle Kim
Maud Wiggins always bitched about the water. Therefore, nobody paid much attention when the old biddy called to complain that her tap water smelled bad. It is the policy of our water company to respond to each and every customer complaint – half of them from Maud Wiggins – in a prompt and courteous manner. I am the Director of Water Quality; all complaint reports land in my inbox. I knew this was coming.
My field service technician, Bob Brunner, hadn’t shown up for work. In his stead, I sent Tiny to investigate. Weighing in at three hundred torpid pounds, Tiny is the most lackadaisical bum on staff, which is saying a lot. Tiny returned from the old lady’s house with his typical lazy ass report: “I ain’t smelled nothin’.”
Maud Wiggins called again the next day. She griped that the water smelled even worse. I sent Tiny out again. The second time, Tiny surmounted his inertia enough to bring back a sample from Maud’s kitchen faucet. My lab chemist conducted the usual bench top tests: pH, hardness, turbidity, iron, manganese, total coliform, fecal coliform. All levels were normal.
In the meantime, I confess, I ordered spring water, home delivery. I never told a soul. If my colleagues had found out, the recriminations would have never ceased. Bottled water to a water treatment professional is like writing to an engineer. I didn’t mind flushing the toilet with the tap water, or doing the wash, or even showering in it. I just couldn’t bring myself to drink it. I started bringing sodas to work so nobody would suspect what I’d done.
Maud Wiggins called again the next day. The receptionist notified me in sarcastic sing song, “You’ll never guess who’s on Line One.” We all regarded Maud as a crank, and that she was, but I knew the old woman had the nose of a bloodhound. This time, I conducted the site visit personally.
Maud lived on two acres of fallow farmland under the long shadow of the municipality’s two million gallon elevated water storage tank. A geometry of new construction cluster homes surrounded her property. These Lego chateaus had sprung up overnight, sold on the enticement of granite countertops before the ink dried on the architect’s plans. Having refused to sell out, Maud enjoyed a view of the development’s community pool and playground. No doubt she rang the association on a daily basis to complain about the odious ruckus of happy children. At least the water pressure was good.
I pulled the company pickup into Maud’s weedy driveway. Her split-level house hunkered with the neglect of the elderly: paint peeling, roof shingles curling. Maud’s corrugated face peered out from between the crinolines. It took her ages to get to the door and longer to get it unlocked. She squinted at me and her face puckered as if she’d taken a bitter pill.
“Hello, Mrs. Wiggins. How are you today?”
“No sense complaining.”
“That never stops anyone.”
“Are you with the water department?”
“Mrs. Wiggins, don’t you remember me? I’ve been out here at least a hundred times.”
“I didn’t know they let girls work there.”
“Times they are a-changing, Mrs. Wiggins.”
“You look very young.”
“You’re much too kind!”
“It wasn’t a compliment.”
The musty clutter inside the old woman’s house – crocheted doilies, tatted antimacassars, yellowed photographs of dead people, flaking piles of newspaper and magazines – bespoke a life lingering beyond its utility. I followed her to the kitchen which reeked of fermenting chicken soup and urine. Or maybe that was Maud. How this stinky fusspot could smell anything in the tap water was a miracle.
I opened the cold water faucet at her kitchen sink and timed the first flush with my wristwatch. I had calculated the residence time from the water storage tank to Maud’s tap, and I ran the water for twice that duration in case someone down the line questioned the accuracy of my measurements. Most customers will busy themselves with fake chores or retreat to their television while I’m working in their house. Not Maud Wiggins. She hovered over me like a specter.
“Do you know what you’re doing?” Maud asked.
Filling water jugs is not a complex procedure, and, yes, I knew what I was doing. Patiently, professionally, I delivered an impromptu speech on taste and odor – detection methods, potential sources of the problem, water quality changes in the distribution system, treatment alternatives – mostly to shut her up.
“I think you don’t know what you’re doing,” said Maud.
The decaying crone glared at me with rheumy eyes that oscillated in their sunken sockets. She was goading me.
“Be good, Mrs. Wiggins. I’ll call you tomorrow with the results.”
“Tell them to send that nice young man next time.”
When I returned to the lab, I convened the taste and odor panel. Our four person panel comprised Tiny, Hope – the new lab assistant, a treatment plant operator, and Bob Brunner.
In the lunch room where the operators and maintenance men loiter, I asked the guys where Brunner was. Blank looks. Normally, Brunner manhandled any confrontations with management. In the absence of their alpha male, the pack was disoriented.
I asked if Brunner had been drinking again. The guys denied it. I asked if Brunner meant to sign out for vacation. The guys latched onto this idea, bumbling into a makeshift line of defense.
“Oh yeah, yeah,” one of the operators said. “Brunner mentioned a family emergency he had to take care of…out of town.”
The thought of Brunner caring for family struck me as incongruous. Then again, I wasn’t one to talk. The guys exchanged glances.
“Uh huh, that’s right,” said another. “I told him I’d sign him out. But I forgot.”
I asked them if anyone had any idea how long Brunner would be out.
“Yes, ma’am,” said one of the guys, sarcastic accent on “ma’am”. He looked around the lunch room for a prompt.
“A week,” said his cohort. “That’s right. He told me that when he called me. It was real late, like midnight, one AM when the family emergency come up. I was barely awake. That’s why I forgot.”
They were lying. But I had no choice but to fill in for Brunner on the taste and odor panel.
There’s always a bustle of excitement when the panel is assembled. Let’s face it. The life of a water treatment plant employee is not exactly scintillating; most of the time, we watch water flow. Each panelist had a form on a clipboard with a pen attached by a string. The lab chemist brought in beakers of water samples warmed to 45 degrees Celsius. In the blind test, each of us received an ideal sample, straight out of the clearwell, where the finished water receives its final chlorine disinfection, and a test sample from Maud’s tap.
I don’t enjoy drinking out of beakers and I don’t enjoy lukewarm water. But these factors had nothing to do with the nausea that welled up when I sniffed then sipped Maud’s water. I felt green. I put my head down and scribbled on my form till the wave passed.
Then we compared notes. The chemist confirmed that all panelists correctly identified Maud’s water versus the control sample. We discussed the taste and odor classification. Tiny thought the water was musty. The operator said earthy. In her characteristically timid way, Hope asked, might it be rotten egg? I said chemical. Hope hastily scribbled out “rotten egg” from her form and changed her description to “chemical”. Hope didn’t know it, but rotten egg was about right.
I distributed an internal memo recommending that we increase the chlorine by one milligram per liter for several days. My boss, the plant manager, dithered, not because high chlorine would increase the carcinogenic disinfection by-products, not because more chemical would cost more money, but because we would be inundated with customer complaints. Folks tend to be hyper-sensitive to chlorine. I insisted. The chlorine was cranked up. As expected, the customer complaints fried the phone lines. After two days of high chlorine, we resumed the normal treatment regimen. But the customer phone calls did not abate.
One afternoon, after all but the night crew had gone home, Hope tapped on the glass of my open office door and peered inside, clutching a manila folder to her chest. I motioned her in with a jerk of my head. She perched herself on the edge of the guest chair.
Hope irritated me. Like a mouse in the house.
“What have you got for me?” I asked, forcing myself to smile.
“Sorry. Sorry to bother you. This probably makes no sense. But I just wanted to run something by you. Something I noticed?”
“Sure, Hope. Shoot.”
“I’m sorry. I just…well, I plotted today’s taste and odor complaints on our service area map and I noticed, well, maybe it’s nothing, or maybe I’m missing something…”
She opened her folder and positioned a water distribution system map before me. She had circled the location of customer complaints. Several concentric circles marked Maud Wiggin’s home, like a bullseye. The remaining circles were concentrated in the new development adjacent to Maud’s property.
“Hmmm. What do you make of it?”
“Well, I don’t know if this makes any sense, sorry, but I was wondering if there might be something in the water pipes near Mrs. Wiggin’s house. I mean, there hasn’t been an algal bloom yet and the finished water at the plant is perfect. The complaints haven’t been about chlorinous after we turned the chlorine back down to normal. It’s just an idea. It’s probably stupid?”
“Guess what, Hope?”
I took a map out of my top desk drawer on which I, too, had plotted the location of the complaints. I set our maps side by side. Hope’s face collapsed in humiliation.
“Great minds think alike!” I said, and winked at her. Her face lit up like a baby playing peekaboo.
“Oh my gosh!” she said, and giggled with her hand over her mouth.
“So. What should we do about this?”
Faced with this question, poor Hope squirmed like pinned insect. She was a problem finder, not a problem solver.
“You think we should try permanganate?” I asked.
“Yes! Potassium permanganate for treatment of stubborn taste and odor,” she quoted verbatim from the standard methods manual. “I was just about to say that.”
“Like I said, great minds…” I pointed at her to finish my sentence.
“…think alike!” she chimed in.
My solution utterly failed to address the phenomenon Hope had uncovered, but my neophyte was so eager to please that she jumped aboard. Hope was my new pet. I had a feeling she would come in handy somehow. I invited Hope to observe with me as the lab chemist conducted the bench top jar test to set the permanganate dose.
I remembered the first time I had performed a permanganate jar test. It had been my first assignment as a new hire at the utility. I had gone overboard, conducting research, interviewing neighboring utilities regarding their permanganate experiences, projecting doses based on theoretical demand, entering data on spreadsheets, graphing scatter plots. Bob Brunner had been there. He had expressed his opinion of my work. You’re book smart but you ain’t got no common sense.
This time, I watched the lab chemist conduct her own seat-of-the pants jar test, dosing a range of oxidant concentrations in a series of jars with mechanical stirrers. As the contaminants in the water were oxidized by the treatment chemical, the characteristic pink color of the permanganate faded. The chemist recommended the dose tested the middle jar, corresponding to the highest dose exhibiting no trace of pink color, a logical choice.
“Let’s go with this,” I said, pointing to the jar one dose increment higher.
The chemist warned that we might get pink water.
I knew that. I also knew the complaints would be close to the water plant where the chemical was dosed, diverting attention from that troublesome Maud Wiggins. By the time the water reached her outskirts of the distribution system, the pink water would be gone. I turned to Hope.
“What do you think, Hope?”
She bit her lip. Wordlessly, she pointed to the jar I had picked.
We started up the potassium permanganate at the dosage I had selected. As expected, we were barraged by phone calls from customers near the water plant complaining about the pink water. One hysterical customer swore she saw blood in the water. I ordered the permanganate treatment terminated. As the pink water flap subsided, the taste and odor complaints from Maud Wiggins and her neighbors swelled.
Now my boss, the plant manager, got involved. He ordered the lines flushed. In the middle of the night, when usage was lowest, the maintenance crew opened the hydrants, wasting a million gallons of water into the storm sewers. It helped for a day. Then the taste and odor problem flared right back up. The problem was spreading beyond Maud Wiggins, beyond the new development.
We sampled dozens of locations throughout water distribution system, conducted taste and odor tests, and plotted the results on the map. The pattern would have been obvious to a cretin. The problem was concentrated immediately downstream of the elevated water storage tank. The plant manager ordered the water tank opened up for inspection. He announced that he would accompany me and my field service technician on the inspection, noting that he hadn’t been up to the water tank since it was dedicated almost ten years ago. I suppose every decade or so the boss feels compelled to demonstrate that he earns his fat paycheck.
Tiny drove us out to the site, grousing all the way about the impending two hundred foot climb to the top of the water tank. Up in the passenger seat, the plant manager fidgeted and rubbed his face. Then he cracked loud, stupid jokes.
“If at first you don’t succeed, don’t climb a water tank. Ha ha ha!”
The boss man’s initial bravado had obviously been undermined by Tiny’s craven whining. We pulled up to the gate of the chain link enclosure rimmed with razor wire surrounding the water tank. I jumped out to unlock the gate and waved the truck in.
“Okay if I leave the gate open?” I asked the plant manager.
Rarely called upon to make everyday decisions, he raised his eyebrows for a hint.
“Should be fine. Never any trouble here.”
“Leave the gate open,” he commanded.
Good: that’s what I wanted. It would be more efficient.
I unlocked the door leading into the water tank support structure, a reinforced concrete cylinder a hundred feet in diameter and two hundred feet high that supported the steel water tank overhead. Visitors are always surprised to discover that the pedestal is not filled with water. You’d think the personnel door would be a clue.
I flipped on the lights. A wan glow illuminated the dank cement walls streaked with crystalline efflorescence. Water trickled through the wall-mounted instruments continuously monitoring the water’s turbidity and chlorine residual. Reflexively, I glanced up at the dome where two million gallons of water, enough to fill about three Olympic swimming pools, were propped two hundred feet overhead, and hoped the design safety factors were adequately conservative.
I ushered the inspection party to the local control panel and opened the cover. Ignoring Tiny rolling his eyes, I handled every switch and announced aloud, “Low level, check. High level, check…” Utter nonsense, but it seemed to make the boss feel more secure. I shut the control cabinet and said, “Let’s go!”
We donned the body harnesses, which was some rigmarole because the boss could not remember how, yet refused any assistance, and because Tiny had to let the straps out all the way to encompass his immense girth. I led the way, largely because I was unconvinced the safety equipment was rated for Tiny’s load. I hardly relished the prospect of such a vast personage landing on me. Snapping my harness onto the safety rail trolley, I climbed the ladder. At fifty feet intervals, there were resting platforms where I leaned against the railing to wait and wait for Tiny and the plant manager to huff and puff their way up. Finally, at the top of the structural concrete wall, we reached the walkway leading to the four foot diameter, forty foot high steel access tube rising through the center of the water tank.
Mounting the ladder inside a steel access tube surrounded by forty feet of drinking water inevitably evoked a sense of claustrophobia. I wasn’t the only one. We all scrambled lickety-split through the access hatch and onto the roof of the tank, sucking air as if we had been suffocating. Tiny was flushed crimson and parabolas of sweat darkened the armpits and neck of his uniform. The plant manager clearly regretted his misguided boondoggle.
Adjacent to the access hatch from which we had just emerged was a second hatch that opened directly into the water tank. I handed Tiny the key to the padlock and he opened it. A puff of fetid air escaped from the air space above the water surface. Tiny made a face and stuck his head inside for about a microsecond.
“I ain’t seen nothin’,” Tiny said.
The plant manager gave it a go and recoiled reflexively.
He asked, “Is it supposed to smell like that in there?”
What a boob.
My turn. I spotted the corpse right away. On the opposite side of the central access tube we had just climbed up through, where the current to the overflow standpipe would have pulled flotsam during a high water condition, the body floated face down, its head dangling below the surface. I gathered myself, screamed, and toppled backwards.
“Call 911,” I gasped before passing out.
I heard the sirens in the distance and sat up. It didn’t take much to assure the boss and Tiny that I was good to go. They were giddy with excitement. An immense hubbub ensued when the firemen, police, and paramedics jostled their way to the top of the tank. After the initial chest thumping, the police stepped aside and allowed us to work with the firemen to drain the tank and remove the body.
The corpse, bloated and greenish bronze, was unrecognizable. Putrefaction had eaten the flesh and, even laid out in the open air, its foul stench permeated the atmosphere. The skin around the eyes and mouth had rotted away, creating a ghastly expression of horror.
“Can any of you identify the body?” asked the police officer.
Nobody could. I pointed to the nametag sewn to its shirt.
“Look. Brunner. It’s Bob Brunner. He worked for me.”
Then I covered my face and sobbed. The superfluous paramedic made himself useful by patting my shoulder. Tiny moaned, shuffled to the chain link fence, and vomited. The paramedic hastened to the more urgent patient and massaged Tiny’s shoulders as he heaved.
The next few days would be crazy busy. There would be a temporary water service disruption, boil water advisory, line flushing, super-chlorination, water quality sampling, managing the media. It wasn’t until after 24 straight grueling hours of damage control that I had time to reflect alone.
* * *
Over the previous couple of years, I had been collaborating with our consulting engineer on a research project modeling the formation of disinfection by-products in the distribution system. The consultant had noticed a discrepancy in the data. To clean up our results and make our graphs look prettier required additional sampling in the elevated water storage tank. I would have preferred to use someone else, but it was the end of the shift, the paper was due, and I could only find Brunner. He was none too pleased to be dragged from his comfortable lair in the control room on account of my “ivory tower gobbledygook”.
Inside the concrete support structure, Brunner snorted when I reached for the climbing safety gear, and clambered up the ladder. I had no choice but to hurry after him or be stranded in his wake. At the top, Brunner opened the access hatch into the tank. He held out his open palm and barked, “Give it.” I looked around and realized that we had left the long-handled sample dipper in the company truck.
“Can you go get it?” I asked.
“The hell I will.”
Brunner yanked up the telescoping safety post from the access ladder. He snatched the bottle right out of my tool belt and started down the ladder to collect my sample.
“You can’t do that. Your boots are dirty!”
“I ain’t touching the water.”
“Just wait. Christ. I’ll go down get the dipper.”
“I got it. Don’t get your panties in a twist.”
“Don’t go down there. You’re forcing me to write you up.”
“Okay. Have it your way.”
He climbed back out and laid himself over the rim of the hatch. Sliding on his belly, he went in head first.
“You won’t be able to reach, Brunner. The water level is down too low.”
“Yeah? Watch me.”
He slid in further till only his legs were out of the hatch.
“You need to get out of there, Brunner.”
“Go change your tampon. Do you want it or not?”
“You’re going to fall in, you dummy.”
“Put a lid on it.”
“I got it. I got it.”
Then, with a great bellow, he slipped down the hatch and disappeared except for one work boot hooked to the top rung of the ladder. I heard my sample bottle splash into the drinking water. There was a moment of silence.
“Help me, goddamn it,” Brunner’s voice echoed from below the hatch.
I admit it was satisfying.
I assessed the precarious geometry of Brunner’s person. He clung upside down against the ladder having grabbed one side rail with both hands. Only one boot was hooked to the top rung of the ladder; the other searched about for a foothold. With half his body blocking access, there was scant room to maneuver safely in the 30 inch square hatch.
I have no explanation for what happened next.
I stepped carefully, deliberately, to the edge of the hatch and grasped the ladder safety post. Then, I kicked his boot. One. Two. Three kicks. And Brunner tumbled into the tank in a violent tangle of limbs. He sank goggle eyed into the water and thrashed his way to the surface.
“You fucking bitch!” he screamed.
That was a very rude thing to say to me just then.
In a level tone, I reminded him, “I told you not to do that.”
“Help! I can’t swim, goddamn it!”
What an ironic deficiency for a water treatment plant employee. The guys constantly work around open tanks of water. And what if I did climb down there in an attempt to save him? The man was no feather, nor was he particularly docile. We could drown together in the municipal drinking water. While I contemplated my options, Brunner launched a frantic doggy paddle toward the ladder. Observing this, I realized that if Brunner got out of his predicament, he might accuse me of attempted murder. The furious determination on his face irked me. Very slowly, because I was still deciding what to do, I put the safety post down. Brunner saw this. His eyes bulged with rage. He propelled himself out of the water and roared. I slammed the hatch and secured the padlock in the hasp.
Then I flew down the tank access tube, down the concrete support structure, without stopping at the resting platforms. My mind must have been churning as fast as my limbs because by the time I reached grade, I knew exactly what to do.
I proceeded to the control panel which housed the local controls and a remote telemetry unit for on-site monitoring and control of the water tank parameters. I disabled the high level switch and overflow alarm and raised the water distribution system pressure set point. My new set point would be communicated by radio telemetry to the supervisory control and data acquisition system back at the water plant. The finished water service pumps at the plant would automatically increase production and fill the tank to a higher level to meet the high pressure set point, like a home thermostat turns up a furnace. It was Tiny’s shift in water plant central control room; he’d either be snoozing or gorging on a cheesesteak. I knew I was good.
It took an eternity for the water level to rise. I crossed to the opposite side of the concrete column and put my ear to the overflow pipe till I heard the water flow over the weir, into the standpipe, and down the drain line. Then I waited for the longest half hour of my life before returning the settings to normal.
I thought about climbing back to the top of the tank to make sure it was over. Maybe I would even jump in the tank and pretend I had tried to save Brunner. But what if I opened the hatch to find his livid face snarling at me? Stubborn bastard might have reached the ladder, climbed it to the top, stuck his face into the air space above the overflow weir, and hung on. I decided to go back to the water plant. I felt drained.
* * *
After the body was found, amidst the chaos surrounding the water service disruption, I called Hope into my office. I took out my calendar and pointed to the fateful day.
“Hope, where were you the day Bob Brunner disappeared?”
Her eyes popped. She shuddered and hugged herself.
“Oh gee, I’m not sure, but I’m sure I must have been here. Only, sorry, because I’m always here.”
“That’s right! You and I spent the whole day working on the water quality sampling plan together. Remember?”
The silly creature clapped her hands.
“Right. I remember now.”
“And we had trouble budget-wise, and we had to scale back. Which was hard. Because we wanted to do everything. But we couldn’t. It took us all day to work it out.”
“Yes, oh yes.”
“I just wanted to be sure. They might ask us. So are we sure?”
I knew a girl like Hope would come in handy.
The plant workers who lied to me about Brunner’s whereabouts came in for heavy questioning. They were driven to the station in police cars and grilled for hours. The guys returned to work ashen, shaken. I guess they won’t be trying to fool me again anytime soon.
Hope and I had our story solid. But the cursory questioning made plain that we were never suspects. Nobody thought to review the data that was automatically logged in our computer database recording the operational history of every piece of equipment, instrument, and sensor in our system. Why would they? It would be over their heads.
No doubt past scuffles with Brunner’s drunken binges colored the police department’s perceptions. The investigation wrapped in less than a week. Brunner’s death was ruled a rogue accident.
When water plant operations returned to normal, I made a site visit to Maud Wiggins’ home to take a sample from her tap for follow up testing. As I drove past the water tank, I averted my eyes. Navel gazing is not my thing. Honestly? Until now, I never thought about the accident, except in nightmares which, regrettably, I cannot control.
Maud opened the door with a puss on. She nagged me until I apologized for not listening to her in the first place. She was right, I was wrong. The concession was not enough to silence her.
“Do I have to pay my water bill?”
“Mrs. Wiggins, I will personally see to it that you get a break on your water bill.”
“Good,” she said, aiming a bony finger to my chest. “Because it’s all your fault.”
Suddenly, a hot flush burned my cheeks. Turning my face away from Maud, I found myself staring square at the water tank looming outside her kitchen window. From this vantage point, I could barely make out the railing on the top. Could an old bat like Maud Wiggins possibly have witnessed the incident from such a faraway distance through her smudged windows?
I faced her. I despised everything about Maud Wiggins: her sour odor, her vellum skin, her cottony patches of hair, her scrawny neck quivering with loose skin folds from chin to clavicle. A notion flooded over me. Nobody cared about her. How simple it would be to wrap my hands around that brittle neck and throttle it shut.
Annabelle Kim‘s debut novel, Tiger Pelt, to be published this summer, was awarded the Kirkus Star and named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2015. Kim minored in English Literature at MIT and studied in the MIT Writing Program. Her previous writing has won contests sponsored by WritersType and Writer’s Billboard. Her short fiction piece “ICBM” appeared in the 2015 Kelsey Review issue.