Fiction · 08/12/2009

Inside Job

The rehab program was court ordered, so when they kicked me out, the police brought me to my father’s. Having been a prosecutor, he pulled strings — told them he was giving me one more chance. I hadn’t spoken to him since my mother’s funeral two years before.

Better than jail, I thought.

Receiving me at the door, he brought me straight to the basement.

We stood in an inch of water.

Flood, I said, shrugging.

You’re going to clean this up, he said, pointing at me. On your own.

After three hours with his shop vac, I had the water down to just a sheen on the floor. It was the hardest I’d worked in years. Real sweat – not the sweats I was used to.

Dad stayed upstairs the whole time cleaning PVC residue from old coins. When I was a kid, he told me that the polyvinyl chloride in coin flips breaks down and leaves a green, smelly tint on the coins. He showed me one of the flips — a small, soft square of plastic meant for storing the coins.

These are the flips that the dealers use to sell coins in, he said. They’re not meant for long-term storage, but some collectors are lazy. People look for the easiest way.

I find damaged coins at estate sales, he once told me. I buy them cheap and clean them — often making them worth ten times what I paid.

When I was twelve, he tried to show me. I lasted five minutes before he told me to get lost. I was rubbing too hard with the Q-tips.

You’re putting hairlines in the surface, he said. Just let me do it.

I hated those coins.

The next morning, I brought him down to the basement. We turned on the light and found an inch of water.

Harder than you thought, isn’t it, he said, laughing.

My arms ached from dumping gallons of water out of the shop vac into the utility sink.

I don’t get it.

Ground water, he said. We had a helluva lot of snow this winter. Then, we had two months of heavy rain. It’s coming up from underneath.

He told me about the weep tiles — loosely fit pipes around the footing of the house that collect water and direct it out through the sewer.

You’ve got a clogged system, he said. You’ll need to rent a machine and snake it.

I don’t know how, I said.

You’ll learn.

You could have told me yesterday…about the weep tiles, I said, rubbing my arms.

You don’t have a history of listening, he said.

We rented a Root 66 drain cleaner. He left me with it in the basement along with leather gloves and one hundred feet of cable.

I pored over that instruction manual. After an hour, I fed the cable into the weep tile access. I cleaned the sand trap. I snaked one hundred feet in both directions. Straining, I dragged out years of sediment and silt. A few times, I glanced over my shoulder, hoping to catch him watching my work, but he was never there.

It was midnight when I finished. The water streamed through the cleaned pipes into the sewer drain and out toward the street. On my knees, I watched it with a flashlight. Then, I ran the shop vac again.

Pulling off my sweat-soaked clothes, I fell naked into the cot he’d set up for me.

In the morning, the water was nearly gone.

Feels pretty good, doesn’t it, he said, to know that you’re not totally worthless.

As a reward, he showed me my old bedroom which he had converted into a shrine for his coins. Dozens of glass display cases. Framed coins on the wall.

Stupid, really. They should have been secure in a safe.

After I returned the drain cleaner, he gave me a spare key to the house. I looked at it.

I’m going out for the day to hit some estate sales, he said. Go out yourself if you want. You’ve earned it.

I stayed in watching television – chewing my nails and smoking cigarettes on his deck. When his headlights flashed over the picture window, I was shaking pretty bad.

You didn’t go out, he said, smiling.

The next day he brought me into the basement again. He showed me the first two rows of water-soaked cinder block. Small puddles seeped out of the mortar joints onto the floor.

Residual damage, he said. The brick’s compromised. You need to find the seeping points and plug them with hydraulic cement. Water finds the easiest path. You need to force it down into the weep tiles. No job this big is ever easy.

In the hum of a dehumidifier and two fans, I worked with a putty knife.

The best defense is to keep the water away in the first place, he said.

He had me jet clean the gutters, add extensions to the downspouts, and put in a French drain at one bad corner.

My dreams were of heavy rains, runoff water, underground springs…and me holding it all back.

Four weeks later, we stood in the basement one morning after a night of raucous thunderstorms. There wasn’t a teaspoon of water on the floor anywhere. I walked the perimeter with a flashlight and searched the walls for the tiny drops I’d come to dread.

I think you got it, he said, chuckling. It’s bone dry down here.

I pointed to places where some of the hydraulic cement was darker.

There’s still moisture, he said, still water trying to get in, but it won’t come through those plugs. He put his arm around me – the first time I could ever remember him doing it.

Couple coats of dry-loc paint, and you’ll be all set. It’s a little damp, but it’s curing.

Three days later, after the paint dried, he kicked me out.

Make something of yourself, he said. It’s now or never.

I walked down his driveway in a steady rain. I didn’t know where to go.

Hours later, weak with water, I pressed my hands into my pockets and found the key my father had forgotten to ask me to return. Feeling its cold smoothness, I’d guessed it was one of his coins…maybe given for luck. Then, moving my thumb, I found the jagged teeth.


Jeff Vande Zande teaches English at Delta College in Midland, MI. His stories have been collected in a full-length collection, Emergency Stopping and Other Stories (Bottom Dog Press). Individual stories have appeared in Coe Review, Existere, Word Riot, Matrix and Smokelong Quarterly, among others. He has two novels: Into the Desperate Country (March Street Press) and Landscape with Fragmented Figures, recently released from Bottom Dog Press. He maintains a website at