Hydrophobia

Gabriel’s summary of “An Owner’s Guide to Home Repair, Page 238: What To Do About Water Odor” By: Michael Vincent Zito

An unnamed man turns on his faucet to find a foul smelling odor coming out from his water. He tries all the other faucets, shower, and the toilet all which release a horrible odor into his home. He goes into the basement to pull out The Owners Guide to home repair, a book his wife bought him the first christmas they were married. He flips to the Plumbing section which narrates the rest of the story from here on out.He asks around and takes apart and puts back together his plumbing system yet the odor persists.  After finding nothing wrong he calls the public water authority who seem uncaring in the matter because his home is the only house out of the thousands that share his local water supply to have this issue. He asks for the exact source of his water, Timber Lake Reservoir the man replies. He has a terrible realization as this is the lake where he dumped his wife’s body after they had a massive possibly marriage ending fight. The pipes in his home rattle violently that night, he can’t sleep and is forced to accept the stench as he steps in the shower and turns on the faucet, letting the water run over him.

Chronic Tension: The man killed his wife and dumped her body in a reservoir.

Acute tension: Her corpse is coming back to him through the water pipes releasing a horrible odor.

The first story element I tracked was tension, which was done quite impressively in my opinion. Michael Vincent Zito is able to tell this mystery of water odor while also ramping up the tension at the same time. Take for example this paragraph,

Call the public water authority. Tell them about the smell. Tell them you cannot live like this. Realize that the man on the phone is indifferent to your distress, that there is nothing he will do to help you, not when two thousand homes in your district share the same water source, and you are the only one to complain.

This paragraph takes a little wind out of you when you read it. We had already previously known that Ellis his neighbor has no issues with his water but to read that not a single house out of thousands has this issue combined with the knowledge that the only authority who can help him in this matter is uncaring, its tense to say the least.

The second story element I  tracked was unreliable narration. I myself am a huge fan of unreliable narrators and while reading this story I picked up on a couple hints of that. There is nothing wrong with his water or his piping  yet here is this odor, this odor that haunts him constantly. For example take this paragraph,

Raise your dirtied face to the showerhead knocking and quaking above you, scream no no no, but you must. Accept it all, the memory, the monstrous pounding of the pipes,

I don’t believe water pipes can shake so violently. So to read this leads me to believe that possibly the character is hallucinating. This theory could be backed up by this line,

Detect a whisper, coming from your bathroom, what could be a trickle of water or could be her voice: Darling.

Trickling water doesn’t sound like whispers yet this man believes it could be her voice calling for him, he’s clearly tumbling deeper into a sense of delirium after discovering that where he gets his water from the same reservoir that he dumped his wife’s corpse. What I will take to implement into my own writing from this story is how to write better tension. Specifically by crossing out the possible options  leaving the reader to puzzle over what the answer could be while also being dismissed by any authority that could help you in the matter.

Questions:

Why would the author lightly implement the unreliable narrator factor?

How is the tension weak in some places while strong in others and why?

Ellis

Summary

The story opens with the main character, supposedly you, encountering a horrible stench coming from the sink. You go around your house checking each source of water and oh boy, they all stink like straight up booty. You pick up this book on home repair that suggests you ask your neighbor if they’re experiencing the same thing, so you do this, and he doesn’t smell it. He does ask though if you and Margaret want to come over for dinner. You say no. Wait, who’s Margaret? It says to call a plumber. You decide it’d be a useless endeavor, and throw the book away. However, it continues narrating like a book. As time goes on, the odor gets more present and foul. You call the water company and complain about the odor. They say you’re the only one that’s complained. You “realize what this means.” You ask for the water source and it’s just what you suspected, the lake you put your wife, Margaret, in after you killed her with a metal wrench. The lake is where the water comes from. It’s filled with particles from her degrading corpse. It haunts you at night. The pipes are moaning at you. Finally, you can’t take it anymore, and finally shower and let her wash over you, burning with vengeance.

Ellis’s Section for Presentation

The first technique I tracked was the various times the author used language to build the atmosphere of this story, one that is very suspenseful, mysterious, but also very gross, disgusting, and one capable of giving the reader skin crawls. This language not only creates visual imagery, but also sinks into the readers mind, almost inducing the same sensations described in the story. Right off the bat, we receive a description of the stench of the water, comparing it to a dead crab that the main character (you) found as a kid.

…even as the crab’s shell turned a sick, dark grey and erupted with crawling pink worms that scavenged the flesh…

This sentence sears the image into the mind of the reader until the dead crab is almost right in front of them, including the color and small details like the worms. Here’s another example:

Imagine her now at the bottom of that reservoir, stuck in the black muck and vile reeds, the suitcase waterlogged and fallen apart, her corpse fat and half-devoured by fish, Margaret fizzing with decay—particles of death peeling away from her, set free into the water, into the supply, into the pipes, a funeral procession of stink and foulness, Margaret’s body coming home speck by speck in the currents.

This one sentence is full of imagery, describing the corpse of the main characters wife breaking down in the water and being carried through the pipes, but every tiny detail is described, from being eaten by fish, to her leftover particles being sucked into the pipes.

Secondly, I tracked the complexities in the main character, and hints into (or blatant statements about) the main character’s life. Throughout the story, we are slowly discovering the truth behind the reason the water smells so foul, and through that we receive various reactions  from the main character. One of which doesn’t necessarily make sense until the full story is read. After the main character talks on the phone with a man from the public water authority, the man tells him that nobody else has complained about the water. The story simply responds with, “Realize what this means.” This, of course, introduces a complexity, because we, the readers, do not realize what this means, but we can tell that some thought in the mind of the main character has awoken. Later on, we find out that since the wife’s corpse is in the water, and only the main character can smell it, that only adds to the main character’s belief that the water is almost haunted by his/her wife. This continues towards the end of the story, when the main character comes to accept the fact that his/her wife’s body is in the pipes and water. As he lie in bed, the book narrates,

Cover your ears, try to ignore it… shake your head to dispel… the memory… what could be a trickle of water or [be] her voice [saying] Darling.

This reiterates the fact that the main character is being haunted by their realization, that guilt is washing over them, nearly causing hallucinations. Of course, they soon cannot put up a defense against it, and allows the water his wife is in to wash over him.

Questions: Why doesn’t the author directly state/ go into detail about the misdeeds of the main character?

Do you believe everything being said is in the book, in the mind of the main character, etc, and why is it in the point of view that it’s in?

Alex

The chronic tension of the story is that the main character has killed his wife because she has found out about his illegal activities, while the acute tension is that her body (which he dumped in the lake) has contaminated the water supply and is stinking up his home.

The first technique I tracked was point of view. The entire story was written in second person, which I thought was a very interesting way to write. Not many pieces of fiction are written this way simply because it can be awkwardly written. The first paragraph starts with second person and immerses you into the plot:

Turn the crystal knob on your kitchen faucet and shut off the water. Step back. Wave the air in front of you, cough, snort, pinch your nose, do whatever you must to clear the repulsive smell clogging your nostrils as if you’ve just inhaled rotten meat. Think of the dead crab you found when you were ten years old, its body washed to shore in Rhode Island, and you brought it home and kept it all summer long in an empty pickle jar on your dresser, even as the crab’s shell turned a sick, dark grey and erupted with crawling pink worms that scavenged the flesh, until one day in August when you opened the jar. Compare that hideous stench—choking, miserable, terrifying—to the odor here now, the same, coming from the water in your house.

The use of second person point of view and figurative language (which I will talk about later) engage the reader into the story and leave one on the edge of their seat. It really forces the reader to relate to the story (even though I hope no one has killed their wife and shoved her into a lake) because they are already in second person.

Ask Ellis if he’s noticed any trouble with his water. Thank him when he checks and says no. Pretend to be interested in dinner some night, you, him and Margaret, then hang up on the lonely old man.

Remove the panels in your ceilings, room by room, and examine the pipes, spend hours hunting for old iron that may be a source of bacteria, the kind that stinks like death. Crinkle your nose at the smell in these crawl spaces, but find nothing that matches the descriptions and illustrations in your book, just smooth black PVC tubes slithering through walls and floors like huge headless snakes.

The story uses a sort of flashback near the sixth page that shows the main character killing his wife because she found out about some sort of criminal activity that he participated in.

Think of Margaret. Think of her that evening last month when she discovered your lies, your business failures, how desperate you’d become. Think of the words she shouted, words like fraud and criminal and divorce and jail. Think of her later that night at Timber Lake, splayed on the shore like the crab you found in Rhode Island.

Hang up on the man repeating Sir? Sir? and recall the drive in the darkness to Timber Lake, Margaret finally silent on the floor in your backseat, her head soft and broken, the trees black like prison bars as you pulled off the road and picked a path through the elms down to the water, a stumbling, strenuous trek with Margaret in your arms and your cramped fingers hooked through the handle of your largest suitcase, until at last you collapsed at the shore and filled the suitcase first with rocks and then with Margaret. Remember how cold the water felt as you waded into the lake, towing the suitcase until you could go no farther without being pulled under, out where it was deep enough to push Margaret off inside her submersible coffin, sending her sinking and sliding down the slope of the lake floor to an untold resting place.

Imagine her now at the bottom of that reservoir, stuck in the black muck and vile reeds, the suitcase waterlogged and fallen apart, her corpse fat and half-devoured by fish, Margaret fizzing with decay—particles of death peeling away from her, set free into the water, into the supply, into the pipes, a funeral procession of stink and foulness, Margaret’s body coming home speck by speck in the currents.

The second technique I tracked was figurative language. There are so many similes, metaphors, and strong images in the story. Like stated previously, the first paragraph borderline nauseates the reader with its clear-cut, intense imagery:

Think of the dead crab you found when you were ten years old, its body washed to shore in Rhode Island, and you brought it home and kept it all summer long in an empty pickle jar on your dresser, even as the crab’s shell turned a sick, dark grey and erupted with crawling pink worms that scavenged the flesh…

One could argue that the language distracts from the plot, but I think that enhances the story. Since the story is in both second person and it has a lot of olfactory and visual imagery, it immerses the reader completely into the piece.

I’d like to implement both of these things into my own writing. I’ve never written any fiction in second person perspective, and I’d like to try it. Figurative language is really interesting to me, and I’d like to get better at it.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why did the author choose to keep the origin of the smell hidden until the story was only halfway over?
  2. How does the author use repulsive imagery to propel the story?

 

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