Creative Nonfiction: Water & Sewer
We hope you enjoy Water and Sewer by Nathaniel Page. It is a bit – disarming at times as you will see, but it is an incredibly honest, accurate portrait of life in the marijuana business. In any business, logistics are paramount. In this piece, Page recounts the logistics of, to put it simply, taking a shit.
Creative Nonfiction Editor
Nathaniel Page is a graduate literary reportage major at NYU. The following piece, “Water and Sewer” is an excerpt from a book he is currently working on called “Dirt Bag Gold Rush.” The book is a series of stories about Humboldt County, California, and Nathaniel’s time working in the northern California marijuana industry.
WATER & SEWER
The toilet was an ornery beast. It stank wickedly of digested barley and buckwheat. It was encrusted with a layer of grime. On the outside, the grime was dust mixed with dried piss. On the inside, the grime was a thick layer of fossilized shit.
In one of my nervous outbursts of house cleaning, I once attempted to scrub the shit layer off with a wire brush and a stone of atrophied baking soda from the bag of Arm & Hammer that sat next to the toilet, but it had not come off. “I tried to clean the toilet with a chisel today,” I told Hirsch later, after I showered aggressively and changed all my clothes and cracked several Coors. “But it looks like I’ll have to upgrade to a jackhammer.”
For twenty years, before Terry and Val had fixed up their property, they’d both just shat in the outhouse. The outhouse was a plank shack about fifteen yards from the house, half-swallowed by brambles and a mulberry tree. It was surrounded by a stack of buckets filled with chemicals that Terry told Hirsch and I to never touch. “That stuff has been illegal for about twenty years,” he told us. “They’ll go a little crazy if you bring it into town.”
Thirteen years before, along with other modern conveniences like electricity and a sealed roof, Terry and Val had decided to install a septic tank on their property. The septic tank they installed was a finicky eater, though, because it was actually a Chevy station wagon.
Terry and Hess and Tom Gibbens excavated a pit in the front yard about three yards from the house’s foundation and rolled an old station wagon into it. They put corrugated steel over the windows, Terry blew a couple drain holes in the floorboards with double-ought buckshot, and they covered it with soil. Thereafter they worried about the condition of the vehicle, and wondered if one day one of the horses would step through it.
Terry was drinking ninety cans of Coors a week back then, driving over his heap of cans with a four-wheeler to compact them. Then the doctor told him he would die if he took another sip. He had hepatitis. It was the only thing that got him on the wagon after thirty years of heavy drinking. It was the blood-borne kind, hepatitis C, but I feared catching it anyway. I was not ready to ride a wagon for the rest of my life. So I was always especially paranoid about that toilet.
Pissing was easy. Once a place is that filthy, people stop caring. Though I usually pissed outside, sometimes it was snowing out or I didn’t have shoes on and I decided to stay in and piss. Terry’s Dijon-colored hepatitis piss was usually chilling in the bowl, foamy. I’d lift the seat with the edge of my foot so that it creaked and flopped against the toilet bowl crookedly (one of its bolts was snapped), and then I’d piss and mostly miss, the accurate stream launching back specs of toilet water that soaked into the double-layered denim of my dungarees, the inaccurate adding to the urine-soaked plywood that was the floor around the toilet. When the floor was dry, bits of wayward toilet towel were fused to its fibers. My piss re-hydrated their fibers, so that the paper swelled up and looked like rabies foam.
Val always cooked side dishes of steamed buckwheat, lentils, and pea soup, so I remained always gassy and shat frequently. To shit, being paranoid about the hepatitis backspash, I would first flush, filling the toilet with salamander piss (as Hirsch called the tap water there, because of the salamanders who lived in the water hole, who often got sucked into the intake and clogged the pipes with their mashed corpses.) Then I sat and passed a load of fibrous turds.
I tried to be quick, because it was cold. Terry and Val kept their living room at 90 degrees with a perpetual fire in the wood stove, but to keep the heat in they kept the bathroom door always closed, and to battle the odor they kept the window next to the toilet open, so all winter we shat in frigid climes.
Through the window the shitter had a nice view of the mountains, the garden terrace and the front yard, a patch of grass chewed to bits by the horses, and scattered over with irregular shapes of waterlogged plywood, bags of hardened concrete, rusting propane canisters, an upside-down steel table, chewed-up tennis balls and bales of twisted hog wire.
To the right of the toilet leaned Terry’s AR-15 and his Ruger Mini 30. Across from the toilet stood a five-foot-high black safe. “What’s in the safe?” I asked Hirsch once.
“Guns, money, hash, the usual,” he told me.
On the floor before the safe lay a pair camouflage waders– they lay there for months– and two water heaters in a row. The first was electric, the second propane. Terry and Val never had enough electricity to power the electric one. They were too paranoid to let a propane truck visit their property, so the second one didn’t work either, though there was a half-full propane tank near the front door. It leaked constantly and smelled like a corpse.
I wiped my ass with paper towels. Terry and Val used paper towels so that there’d be a high enough shit-to-paper ratio to facilitate the paper’s later incineration. The couple’s anuses had hardened to the towel’s dry corncob-like fibers. “I can’t use those little wimpy squares of toilet paper anymore,” Terry said. Everyone placed the paper towels in a trash can and every once in a while Val would burn them.
When I was done stuffing my shit papers into the can, como un Mexicano, there was a ritual for getting turds through the toilet trap and into the Chevy. There were two empty Ace hardware buckets that loitered around the toilet periphery. To flush, I filled up one of the buckets in the shower and poured it all rapidly into the toilet, hoping that the Chevy could take it that day. When the Chevy couldn’t take it, which was more often than not, my turds just circled around in the full bowl, dissolving in the water over the course of the day, and eventually sunk through whatever roots and sludge blocked it and wormed its way into the wagon. If I was lucky and the Chevy was in good working order that day, the turds would flush down with a series of slurping noises as the Chevy lapped at the backside of the toilet’s trap like a thirsty dog.
Sometimes I was lazy and flushed the toilet normally, like people in the rest of America did. Terry could hear my laziness, though, by the lack of a huge sloshing noise in the bathroom just before I came out. As I came out of the bathroom, he said, not looking at me, “You gotta use that bucket. Otherwise it’ll clog up.”
Sure enough, one rainy day– and when it rained the Chevy was always overwhelmed– I tried to flush. When I did so, the stinking, churning soup of brown shit rose to the rim of the toilet and stayed there, churning against the rotation of the earth, like an industrial-sized vat of reduced pea soup.
I looked at it, frowning. A bubble of methane rose to its surface, swelled into a glistening sphere, and burst like a brown firework, with a noise like that of a whale burping– “GLURP.”
I knew the stew would sink down over the course of the day until it occupied just the bottom of the sump, over which next time I shat I’d have to hang my ass, trying to reduce the number of specks of shit that splashed back onto my perineum by squeezing my turds out slowly and dropping them gently into the soup.
One time after a severely long flushing drought during which there was constantly a turd soup stewing in the toilet, Terry took the ninety-minute drive to the hardware store and purchased two pipe rooter cables.
The first was thick and short with a device like an egg whisk on the end. “This one’ll be good for if it’s stuck up high,” Terry said. The second one was long and skinny. “We’ll use this one if that one doesn’t work,” he said.
He and I went into the bathroom and the soup was there. It had stopped even slowly draining, like it normally did under duress. Therefore it was up to almost the rim of the toilet, a layer of several shits opaque and black enough to suck in light and provide the focal point for a galaxy, smelling a bit like Miller High Life.
Terry pulled up his sleeves, grabbed the egg-whisker end of the rooter cable, and reached into the shit stew so that his arm was submerged down to the lower reaches of his armpit. He kept his face turned to the side, mere inches from the stew, the ends of his beard hairs hovering dangerously over the event horizon of its surface.
But Terry didn’t seem to mind. He splashed his arm around, casting specs of stew through the air.
“Alright,” he said, pulling his arm back out. “Hit it.”
I swallowed. I stood over the soup and began to turn the cable crank, so that the cable thrashed in the soup and threw it all over the sides of the toilet, and it drained off the fossilized remains of its forebearers lazily and added little brown chunks to them. I turned and turned, but the blockage wouldn’t give. There was something too big holding it back.
Terry reached back in and started pushing on the cable again. He frowned. “I can feel it bunching up back there,” he said. “Let’s try the narrow one.”
I pulled out the stubby rooter and it slithered from the stew and I put it in the bathtub so that too much of it wouldn’t soak into the rug. Then I took out the skinny one and deployed that and Terry took its end in his hand and plunged it into the stew, reaching down through the sump like God in the Sistine Chapel, and he kept thrusting it as far as he could, practically colliding his clavicle with the bottom of the toilet, the stew sloshing. Eventually he reached back out and stood there with septic water dribbling through his arm hairs.
“Alright, hit it,” he said.
I again turned, but the stew didn’t budge again. They went back to the other rooter. That one only bunched again. They switched rooters, back and forth, Terry saying “goddamn it” and “get that fucker in there,” but failing to overcome the Chevy.
Over time the stew dropped to the level of the trap, but it was draining at the rate of a Mexican arroyo in August. Over the next few days it clogged back up completely, and I bushwhacked through the mulberry and brambles to recommission the outhouse, kicking in a few plants on the outside wall because the door was sealed by a branch, hanging my ass now over a pit of ancient, decayed dung while fierce wasps orbited my anus expectantly. By that time Terry had gone back up to Oregon, and the rooters could do nothing to quell the beast.
One time I did the deed of incinerating the shit rags. The paper was overflowing like a big jungle flower and people had just been pushing it down further and further for too long. They’d been using the broken end of a broom stick to compact it. Consequently, there was a shit- and urine-soaked brick of fiber at the can’s bottom, stuck in there like a soaked tome.
The biggest challenge had been getting the paper out, then. The broom stick wasn’t quite right; I needed something with a hook on the end. I settled on the fire poker. I’d gotten the fire up and roaring beforehand, in anticipation. Now I had soggy garden gloves on and was in front of the stove, with the door open, the hairs on my arms singing while I tried to figure out how to hook the shit rags out of the can and into a solid wall of flame.
I held the can awkwardly by its bottom and maneuvered the tool in. I hooked the fluffy upper portion easily, and it began to fall out easily, then burst into flame before I’d even got it out of the can. Then the whole goddamn can started on fire. There was a thin layer of paint on it and it caught along with the shit rags. It was lucky there was no smoke detector in the house because the ceiling was becoming obscured by a thick layer of vapor. It smelled like burning plastic and shit.
I dropped the can and stomped on it with my work boot until it went out. There were shit rags all over. The dog was sniffing around in them. “Git! Git!” I said, kicking towards her. She backed off, then started creeping back again with her head hanging. I started picking up the shit rags in big bunches and stuffing them into the fire, where they shot up instantly in flames. My face was red and burning and I had to shield it from the shit flames. I couldn’t quite get all the rags out of the can with the fire poker so I just reached in and started grabbing them in great gobs, until I had to start scraping the sides and bottom of the can with the poker to get the pieces that were stuck off. Finally I had all the shit rags in the stove and I closed the door and the fire roared under pressure.
When I looked out the kitchen window I saw a fine dusting of black ash falling across the yard from the chimney above the house.
It was snowing shit.