Man Called Fran, by John Jeremiah Sullivan

Here is the tale of something plumbing-related that happened at my house.
We had a serious problem involving a frequent sewage smell in the kitchen.
It would be hanging there in the morning or it might emerge in the evening.
It seemed to ooze from the walls or burp from the drains of the kitchen sink,
That special mixture of sulfur and fecal gas, with an undertone of ammonia.
It was faint, which was somehow worse, because that set you sniffing after it.
I contacted every single plumber in town. Some claimed they didn’t smell it,
Which was infuriating. I could tell they thought I was dumb or maybe nuts.
Other plumbers did detect it, and two even charged me to locate the source.
They tried several tricks, snaked video cameras down pipes inside the walls,
Let the taps run and hunted in the basement crawl space for signs of a leak,
Paced the perimeter of our lot to see if the smell was coming from outside.
Nothing, nothing. They were all baffled, and you could tell it annoyed them.
They would start by telling me how many years they’d been in the business.
“Sir, I have been doing this forty years, and I’ve never seen anything like it.”
A phantom odor, a breeze that came and went, and smelled like literal shit.
It got to the point where my wife talked about moving, which was upsetting,
Because she loves this house. We all love it. But a person can’t live like that.
I confessed all of this to the last of the plumbers we tried during that phase.
I remember him, Sean. He had short red hair and a long goatee and tattoos.
I basically said, Listen, if I don’t figure this out, we’re going to have to move.
If there is anything you could suggest, or anybody—like some kind of expert?
Sean sort of cocked his head. He wore cut-off shorts and a sleeveless tee.
“There is this one guy,” he said. “He’s kind of a guru. He works for the city.”
The guy’s name, he added, was Mike Sullivan, which was my father’s name.
I trust doublings like that. I called city utilities and asked to speak with Mike.
He showed up: a tall, clean-shaven man with a drawl, full of plumbing jokes.
Wore an official blue jumper and brown bangs, looked younger than he was.
He listened to my tale as if he had heard it not only before but that morning.
His response was so quick and flat it was as if I had asked him for his address.
“Here’s what you should do,” he said, and laid out this whole series of steps.
Drive an hour, across the border, into South Carolina. Find a fireworks stand.
Buy some smoke bombs, the real powerful ones. They come in packs of ten.
Then get a box fan and run it out to the side yard with a long extension cord.
Find the outflow, then find the cleanout. There’ll be a green metal cap on it.
Outflow: a sewage pipe that exits from a residential or commercial structure.
Cleanout plug: an access hole to a sewer line, located outside of the building.
Mike saw my eyes get glassy. He led me out and showed me where they were.
He pried off the cap. There were tampons in the pipe. “White mice!” he said.
He had so much plumbing humor. He called his suction hose a honey-dipper.
He advised me never to flush anything except fluids, waste, and toilet paper.
At that point, he went back to the instructions—I was to light a smoke bomb
And drop it into the cleanout. Actually, no, there was one thing before that:
Wad up a towel and stuff it into the pipe, on the side away from the house.
“That’ll keep the smoke from the bomb from flowing the wrong direction.”
Only after that should I light the smoke bomb and drop it into the cleanout.
Next, I was to place the box fan, running on high, face-down over the hole.
I would essentially be pumping smoke into the pipes all through the house.
“Then you just go inside and walk around!” he said. “And leave the fan on.”
Three days later I was ready to do everything that Mike had recommended.
I stuffed the towel, lit the bomb, threw it in, and set the box fan face-down.
Went into the house: Ground floor, nada. Staircase, nada. Upstairs hallway,
Something. I couldn’t see any smoke, but I could smell it, a fireworks smell.
I hung a right into the bathroom of the guest room and looked at the toilet.
Smoke billowed from the base. The whole bathroom was filling with smoke.
I don’t know how to describe the boyish joy I felt. I had found the monster.
I called Mike and told him his name would forever be blessed in that house.
He sounded proud, which about made me cry. “All in a day’s work!” he said.
He warned me, however, that this was not really a solution to the problem.
We knew now that the smell was real (I had always known) and which pipe.
Getting into the pipe, locating the crack, and figuring out a way to repair it,
Or else replacing the pipe altogether, those he deemed “another matter.”
Once again, I called Sean, the plumber who’d recommended Mike Sullivan.
I thanked him and said how great Mike had been. I told him about the trick
With the towel and the smoke and the fan. He said, “I never heard of that.”
I asked him if he would stop by again, now that we knew which pipe it was.
The next day he brought over his video camera and snaked it into the pipe.
He didn’t see anything. He tried for a good half hour, too. I was devastated.
“I’ve been doing this forty years,” he said, along with the rest of the speech.
It was worse than that, though. He said that even if we could find the crack,
It would be a bitch to fix. We’re talking about a hundred-year-old iron pipe,
And the part of the house it passes through was a mess, in terms of access.
The old bathtub had a mattress-size slab of plaster in chicken wire below it.
Sean said he wasn’t sure we even could cut into that shit. It might give way.
He named other problems. It was like I wasn’t listening—I couldn’t bear it.
There was just no way that I was going to go this far and not go all the way.
I repeated my own lines: If there’s anything you could suggest, or anybody,
Like some kind of expert. Sean cocked his head to one side. “Well,” he said,
“There is this one guy.” And he gave me the number of a man named Fran.
“Fran’s a little fucked up,” Sean said, “but that may be just what you need.”
I asked him what he meant. “Well,” he said, “let me put it to you this way.”
Sean explained that he and his guys were “good plumbers,” whereas Fran,
He and his crew had “crackhead power,” and sometimes you needed that.
“A crackhead will just throw himself at a wall, even if it’s totally pointless.”
Somehow I knew exactly what Sean meant. We had tried everything else.
I called Fran, who said he happened to be free and could come right over.
Oh, Fran! I will never forget that man, the only man named Fran I ever met.
Let me try to summon and draw him as he was when I first set eyes on him.
He wore not cut-off shorts but those denim culottes that hang to your shins.
He wore a white T-shirt covered in stains. He wore white high-top sneakers.
Between the sneakers and denim culottes, his white gym socks were visible.
He was about five feet four and had a buzz cut. The top of his head was flat.
I mean, it was completely flat, to a degree where you couldn’t help noticing.
A vape pen hung from his neck—I don’t actually think Fran was a crackhead.
He moved slowly and was usually smiling. This wasn’t crackhead behavior.
To me he always gave off the distinctive vibe of the weed-pills-cigarettes man.
He looked at you dreamily as if he’d just woken up. He talked the same way.
Now, Greg? Greg was as committed a crackhead as you could hope to meet.
Greg was Fran’s partner, number two, helper, assistant, and right-hand man.
Also his rival, underminer, frenemy, worst enemy, and designated shit-eater.
They had been working together and against each other for about ten years.
Greg had a formidable gray mustache, strong hands, and wild, piercing eyes.
He had long wavy gray hair—great hair, to tell the truth, for any man his age.
He had the weathered face of a man who’s lived part of his life on the street.
Where Fran would whisper sleepily, Greg’s voice was a manic, barking shout.
They liked to compete over who could sell the other one out first and worse.
Greg would tell me Fran was a thief. Fran would say that Greg smoked crack.
It soon became apparent that both of their accusations were absolutely true,
But they made them as if they expected me to react in a scandalized fashion.
Here was the amazing thing—both men were skilled, even brilliant plumbers.
They loved to talk about their craft, and I enjoy being around people like that.
They told stories about horrible, disgusting situations they’d been involved in,
Ones that left them covered in shit or “things you don’t want to know about.”
They admired our guest-room bathroom’s toilet, where the smoke had been.
It was vintage. “That is one of the best flushing toilets ever made,” Greg said.
He assured me that some people would pay real money to own one of those.
Greg had a habit, distressing from my perspective, of talking a lot about BMs.
That was the term he used: BM, bowel movement. It was a fixation with him.
I hadn’t heard the term since childhood. It is somehow both dainty and gross.
Always remember to do a “courtesy flush,” Greg counseled, “after a big BM.”
A courtesy flush meant flushing the toilet immediately after the first big push.
He promised this would spare me 99% of my bad blocked-up-toilet situations.
“The one you got upstairs, on the other hand? That can handle any size BM.”
Fran talked less about plumbing than Greg did. I don’t think he knew as much.
He knew plenty, but Greg was some type of genius, and Fran was a bit in awe.
Fran grew up in the South, whereas Greg had demonic swamp-Yankee energy.
That said, Fran remained the boss. He tended never to let Greg forget the fact.
It pained me, honestly, to see how Fran would find any excuse to belittle Greg.
Each time I went to pay him, as I counted the money, he’d say to me sotto voce
(He said everything sotto voce but now he came closer and went even lower),
“Here’s what’s sad about it, Mr. John,” he would say, in a soft, mournful tone.
“Greg’s the best plumber I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been at it since high school.”
Then would follow a rundown of Greg’s several, undeniable angelic qualities.
“But the second I pay him, he’s gonna be out there hunting for his crack rock.”
I shook my head. Fran, not breaking eye contact, would add, “I know. It’s sad.”
At the same time, we were both reliant on Greg’s so-called crackhead power,
Fran, in that it allowed him to pay Greg shit wages in cash on a weekly basis,
I, in that I was counting on it to get me access to that pipe, to stop the smell.
And it did. I’ll always remember the day they finally attacked the plaster slab.
I saw instantly that no normal or certified plumber would have attempted it.
Greg took the lead. He had another, bearded guy with him, named Sherman,
Who told me that he could remember working on our house decades before,
When it had been owned by some family whose name I didn’t even recognize.
They teetered on ladders, holding powerful electric saws and a sledgehammer.
I walked away at one point. I genuinely couldn’t watch. It looked so perilous.
They could easily have died, and the house would have collapsed in on itself.
Dust rained down and whitened their faces. Greg blew it from his mustache.
They cursed one another and Fran and their tools and the job and the house.
But they never quit. That was the power. You could call it whatever you want.
They never quit, and the hour came when I was working upstairs in my office.
Fran yelled up that there was something he knew I was going to want to see.
I reached the foot of the steps, and there it lay, in the middle of the hallway,
A six-foot length of cast-iron pipe, like a piece of an antique artillery weapon,
And along the top of the pipe ran a narrow but unmistakable foot-long crack.
I looked up. Greg was grinning at me through the dust and sweat on his face.
“Greg,” I said. “Greg, man. You found the fucking crack. You actually did it.”
Fran stood smiling his vaped-out smile, but I could see that he was bothered.
Greg was getting to bask. Fran said something like, “That’s just what we do.”
He explained that because the crack ran so exactly along the top of the pipe,
We never saw a leak. The water and waste had just flowed along the bottom.
The gas, on the other hand, when it backed up from the sewer, could escape.
As for why the camera had been unable to spot the crack? He had no theory.
“Sometimes people buy that technology but don’t really know how to use it.”
When my wife got home from work and I told her the news she acted excited.
At the same time I wasn’t sure if she believed me, or believed it could be real.
Try to understand—for us the smell had been a kind of psychological torture.
The kids didn’t quite get it but saw we were happy and thought that was fun.
Okay, so that was all terrific. But things took an interesting turn at that point.
Partly because we were so grateful, we gave Greg and Fran some extra work,
Little plumbing jobs that we’d been neglecting, in various parts of the house.
Again Greg had some chances to demonstrate what a gifted plumber he was.
And maybe that was part of the problem, i.e., Fran’s irritation began to build.
Greg did one work-around, it’s difficult to put into words the complexity of it.
I’ve shown it to people. You can see it behind a hatch at the back of a closet.
Meant to correct some problem with the flow to a claw-foot tub and shower,
It involves several different short, angled pipes, twisting around one another.
Greg, I recall, was particularly proud of having improvised this weird solution.
It was plumbing as done by M. C. Escher and has worked perfectly ever since.
But as I say, tension mounted between the two men as the days progressed.
They kept having these arguments over materials and other routine matters.
Afterward each would approach me complaining about the other’s behavior,
Warning me that he could not be trusted. Oh, he might seem like a good guy.
Other things happened during this period, mainly with Fran, that seemed off.
At one point he was trying to sell us these raffle tickets. He had a roll of them.
I don’t remember what they were for. His girlfriend’s stepson’s school’s band.
Another time he was hit in the leg by a car, but one driven by former friends?
I picked up an overall sense that the level of tension in his life was increasing.
It was the very last day of their month-long plumbing residency at the house.
On the front porch, heated words were exchanged. Money-related, of course.
Greg felt that he was owed a kind of special-duty pay. Doubtless he was right.
He further asserted that Fran himself had offered these terms a week before.
Fran’s denial, from behind the vague, fixed half-smile, did not seem plausible.
The smile, I think, was the trigger for Greg, but I’m not sure Fran could help it.
I was standing there with them, and Greg put his hands around Fran’s throat.
That is a scary thing to witness up close, when one person is choking another.
You sort of don’t do that unless you sincerely desire the death of that person.
Fran wasn’t weak, even with the Percocet and the vape pen and the damage,
But Greg’s hands had a power that comes only with hard daily physical work.
You can feel it when you shake hands with men like that. It’s differently solid.
Fran gripped Greg’s wrists. I saw he felt that power. His eyes bulged with fear.
Greg took him down—down the steps, over a boxwood, and onto the ground.
Now they were in the front yard. Greg was on top of Fran, squeezing his neck.
The shock passed, and I saw that a murder attempt was happening at my feet.
I dropped to one knee and wrapped both of my hands around Greg’s left arm.
I started to pull, without much effect, yelling at him to stop, let go, don’t do it.
I stood up and pulled harder and was able to make him aware of my presence.
“Greg, you’re killing him!” I screamed. “You’re killing your friend! This is Fran!”
“This ain’t my FUCKING friend!” Greg hissed. “He ain’t never been my friend.”
Fran’s lips were sputtering spittle; he was shaking with the effort of struggling.
I wrapped my body around Greg’s arm and tried to wrench it with my weight.
This very briefly broke his grip, long enough for Fran to punch him in the face.
At that point I inserted myself and did the traditional “let’s break it up” move.
Both men stalked away, angry and shaken, Fran to the street, and Greg inside.
Both pulled out their cell phones and called the police, at the exact same time.
Pretty soon, two cop cars pulled up, each responding to a different complaint.
This is a small Southern town, so naturally the cops knew both Greg and Fran.
Each man gave an impassioned statement. The cops looked pissed to be there.
I spoke with the cops, but it was like they didn’t really even want to talk to me.
After that, I did a ten-minute listening session with Greg and Fran, individually.
Each apologized profusely, but qualified it with vicious aspersions on the other.
One thing that was said stuck out. I am a bit ashamed to say it broke my heart.
Greg told me that Fran had been planning to fool me into giving him the toilet,
The vintage one that was valuable and capable of handling almost any size BM.
Fran was going to tell me that it had cracked when they were cutting the pipe.
I would be forced to buy a new toilet. Fran would get a small percentage there,
Then he would sell the old one for twice that, a double scheme at my expense.
Greg spat out the story so breathlessly it didn’t seem possible he could be lying.
“I didn’t want to tell you,” he said, “but I just feel like you have a right to know.”
That was all many years ago, and I never laid eyes on either of those two again.
I remember them every single day, though, because of a mark they left behind.
When Greg took Fran to the ground, in the yard, they damaged that boxwood.
It grew back, but there was a hole in the side, a hollow, like a cavity in a tooth.
I can’t walk up the steps without passing it. I touch it and say, “Greg and Fran.”
There are also times, mornings, when I think about them with fresh gratitude.
I stand in the kitchen holding a coffee cup and inhale deeply through my nose,
And I pay attention to what I am not smelling, and remember what I once did.
Despite that, I still feel the wound from when Greg told me about Fran’s plan.
That may sound ridiculous, but I thought we had formed an actual friendship.
I’ve never been good at knowing when that’s happening. My sensor is fucked.
I wish Fran hadn’t done it, or Greg hadn’t told me. I guess it’s good that he did?
A year ago I ran into Mike Sullivan, the city plumber who has my father’s name,
Who showed me how to find a cracked pipe using smoke bombs and a box fan.
He was in the neighborhood doing something at one of my neighbors’ houses.
I asked about Greg and Fran. For whatever reason, I assumed they were dead.
He told me only Greg was dead. Fran, he said, was actually doing really well.
I found that so unbelievable, I couldn’t come up with any way to respond.
I asked how Greg had died. All Mike knew was something with his heart.
I tried to get Mike to join me in laughing about how crazy they’d been,
But he didn’t want to go there. He wouldn’t talk shit about them.
That has stayed with me, the way in which he gently refrained.
I have resolved to be more like him, less inclined to mock.
His silence implied that all partake of some holiness,
Except perhaps in ways too obvious to mention,
Greg and Fran, dead and living. Sherman.
I barely even told you about Sherman,
A tall red-bearded man of the forest,
Who doted on his wife and son.
He knew Greg and Fran well.
He helped to find the crack
On the top of that pipe.
He wore blue overalls.
I remember his eyes.
He acted friendly.
Dear Sherman.
Phantoms.
Holy.

Drawings by Jonathan Twingley