It is Florida; it is August. It is too hot for mammals outside. It is one hundred and stupid from sunup to midnight. It is the time when we all lie about like roadkill, stripped as near naked as propriety allows, under ceiling fans set to Blender, shoving our pets off us because they are too damned warm.
It is, of course, the time that the AC starts to malfunction. It’s under a heavy load; it has a lot of work to do. We expect much of it, and the poor thing, slaving in the hot dark attic, is bound to fail at some point. What can one machine do against the sun in Florida in August?
Now. My house, as I’ve probably mentioned, was designed by Frank Lloyd Wrong, after an all-night bender, late in his career when he was well into senility. The original water heater was sandwiched between two load-bearing walls. (That caused the poor plumber no end of consternation when the thing went Tragically Wrong a few years ago.)
The problem with my AC is that, while the heat pump is sensibly on a concrete slab outdoors, the air handler is in the attic. The attic is accessible through the image above: a square of plywood covering a hole in the ceiling, about two and a half feet to a side. The attic access point is inside an alcove too small to be called a hallway, which leads from my bedroom to the bathroom, and just for fun the walls drop down another two and a half feet, or so, from the ceiling.
It is dark, it is confined, and there is no rolled-up rope ladder or teleportation device to get you up there. You need a ladder, and a flashlight, and then to move very carefully so you do not bash the hell out of your elbows or drop the plywood on your head. After that, you somehow have to move yourself further up the ladder, while again not knocking into walls with limbs or noggin, until you are in the attic. Once you are in, you still have to stay on the ladder: I strongly doubt the ceiling materials can hold the weight of a full-grown homo sapiens, although logic dictates it would have had to, at some point, to get the handler installed. Unless they hired little people to do it. Which is entirely possible.
I have no idea how they got the damn thing in there in the first place, and much like the parentage of my late beloved Chihuahua-Labrador dog, I am constantly asked: how did that even happen? I don’t know. I honestly don’t. A friend of mine who is handily inclined theorizes that they put the handler in through the attic gable. My theory is that it was handed up the attic access hole in pieces, like building a ship in a bottle.
However it got there – and we may never truly know – its odd location offers some interesting problems. Condensation, mostly, and this is all stuff I’ve only just learned, so I’ll retell it as I learned it, with the Small Words For The Liberal Arts Major version. The handler gets damp on the outside, same as a glass full of ice water does, because this is the Swamp of Humidity and water condenses on everything.
(No, really: it is a common Floridian problem to exit an air-conditioned car and have your glasses fog up.)
This condensed water is caught by a magical apparatus and fed into a series of tubes that are not the internet; they terminate in a PVC pipe outside, running vertically down the exterior wall, and ending with a sort of u-bend trap of another bit of PVC attached to the pipe. When all goes well, this drips all summer. Drip, drip, drip. It has a little puddle under it, and interesting fungus grows in the mud, and my late beloved Chihuahua-Labrador mix was fond of licking from it, because he was convinced it was a Dog Fountain.
STOP DRINKING THE AIR CONDITIONER PEE!
The problem is when, due to Florida being Florida and all manner of unholy Lovecraftian flora growing in places it oughtn’t, this vital output pipe gets blocked. There is a catch-pan under the air handler, up in the attic, to catch the extra water. With newer machines, there’s a dead-switch that will shut off the handler before the pan overflows, leading people to panic mightily and call the Sainted AC Repairman, who will demand a mighty tithe before he restores function to the Make It Cold Machine, yea verily, for his is the work that keeps us all functioning and he knows he’s got us by the short ‘n curlies. Eighty bucks just to show up, and in our sweaty panic, we pay it gladly. Death, taxes, AC repair, and tourists from Massachusetts driving forty-five in the left lane: these things are constant.
In old machines, like mine, there is no switch so the pan overflows and leaks everywhere. Since the handler is in the attic, my first sign of trouble is that my walls started to drip.
A short text conversation:
Me: “My walls are dripping.”
My friend: “Should I call a priest?”
Me: “It’s not dripping blood.”
My friend: “Another guy I know has a bug infestation and your walls are crying. It’s the End Times.”
The drips became, not a flood or a deluge, but a drizzle: I had standing water curling my floorboards (this whole damn house is water-damaged, see above re: Faulty Water Heater Between Walls) and creating bizarre fluid-filled pockets between the not-so-drywall and the layers of paint. Many paper towels were deployed. Much profanity was sworn. The injured Beloved Dog, which is another story entirely, was moved, sickbed and all, so that the increasing flood would not affect her.
In my desperation I tried to fix the problem myself, knowing nothing about it. Refer again to the photograph above. I have a ladder, a six-foot aluminum deal which weighs about as much as a good wok and gets the shivers when you think about leaning on it. It’s good for painting walls and hanging photographs. It’s older than I am, by far. It’s all I have.
This, I became convinced, was the perfect setting for a Lifetime Movie about one woman’s sudden affliction with quadriplegia and then, later on, how she tearfully and life-affirmingly found meaning once again. I would be one misstep away from bad daytime television, and possibly a guest appearance with Oprah. None of that was encouraging.
I set the rickety ladder in the puddled alcove, too small to be a hallway, and with trepidation and a flashlight ascended to uncertain shadowy doom. My toes gripped the ends of my flipflops in primate fear.
I don’t know if there is a name for the thing I have about heights. It’s not a fear of heights, exactly, but of edges. If you put me in an airplane or a skyscraper I will be delightedly glued to the window, looking out at everything. I love seeing the world from high places.
The problem I have with heights is when they are not safely contained. I dislike edges; I dislike flimsy railings; I have an instinctive fear, beginning at the base of my spine and the most inner parts of my guts, of the gaping void. I suppose that it’s not a fear of heights, but a fear of falling – which makes no sense, but I generally don’t, so that’s all right.
I don’t like dark enclosed spaces much either, though I can handle them much better than a potential fall. Combing the two, though, is a nightmare.
I made it up the ladder, and I pushed away the plyboard. It was heavier than I thought. I scooted another step or two up the ladder, finding myself surrounded by drippy plaster walls, a tiny box atop a rickety perch in the darkness, with the dark unknown space of the attic opening above me. I climbed another step, which got my eyes at a level with the ‘floor’ side of the ceiling in the attic, took the flashlight, and at last set eyes on the air handler.
I don’t honestly know how far it was from the access hole. All I can tell you was that, with the certainty that comes from pure monkey-brain fear, I could not get to it. I could not go further up that ladder, into the tiny square of walls, through the hole, and into an attic which probably would crumble under my elbows. I couldn’t get to the machine.
Then I realized I didn’t know how to get down either, and that’s when the fear truly took hold. I’m not sure how I did it, just that I did: gripping for dear life with my toes curled over the edges of my flipflops and digging into the ridged aluminum ladder steps. I made it down somehow, and laid myself down, and had very serious thoughts about going outside and digging a hole to lie in, to reaffirm my connection with the ground.
Somewhere during all of this I realized it had become a full-blown panic attack, which was unexpected because usually I get them as a side-effect of anxiety overload, not from external stimuli. Emotionally I was calm, detached. Instinctively I wanted to get back into my cave and have Zogg the hunter stand at the exit with his club and a couple of our tame wolves. It was an interesting experience.
When the terror had passed, I conceded defeat, squished through the puddle to collect the ladder and put it away, and then knocked the plyboard back into place with the business end of a mop, because fuck going up the ladder into the Dark High Hole again.
It was then that the Most Handy and Capable Friend said to me: girl, all you need is a shopvac. She explained to me the lore of the Condensate Pipe, its workings and needs, and arranged for me to collect a small shopvac from a hardware store, because a waterlogged house and potentially broken AC handler is no laughing matter.
Except: there was a hurricane: Isaac. Its track was far enough away from us that there was more standing water on my bedroom floor than in the street, but there still was a hurricane, and one does not operate electrical appliances outdoors in the rain. Still, the pipe needed to be vacuumed out.
So I waited for the rain bands to pass (as they do, on the fringes of a storm: rain, then shine, then rain, then shine), and I passed the electrical cord through the kitchen window – first prying the screen loose on one side – and standing there in my polka-dotted rain boots and a pirate skull bandana, I flipped the switch that started the shopvac.
It went: HURRR-GLLLRRRRRR-HOOOGA-HOOOGA-HOOOGA-HOOGA-WHRRR-WHRRR-WHRRR.
The vacuum tube shimmied with the weight of whatever Ungodly Gack was being slurped through it. The vacuum itself made all kinds of noises. The condensate pipe responded in kind with moans and gurgles of its own. And then it was done, or so it seemed: the tube stopped shaking, the wet noises ceased.
I disconnected the tube from the pipe, then opened it up to see what was inside. I don’t know what I was expecting: something that looked like organic vomit, perhaps. What I found was red tide, or something like to it – a runny, watery, rust-red cousin to the slime that builds up on the beach during a particularly virulent fish kill.
I emptied the vacuum out on a patch of dirt where I am sure nothing will ever grow again. I brought it inside and put it away. I mopped up my floor and waited: it would take a few days, probably, for all the extra water to clear up and evaporate, though I was assured it would do so on its own.
It has, mostly. There aren’t puddles on the floor, though my poor floorboards are a tad ripply from the water and my bedroom door sticks in its frame. There is one spot, one damned Lady Macbeth spot, up on the ceiling: another odd little pocket of latex paint, filled with water, that seemingly only drips when I pass under it. It’ll dry out eventually, I’m sure.
A few days later I helped my Awesome Neighbor suction out his condensate pipe: he was having the same problem. His handler was in the roof, too. Neither of us could figure out what the architects around here had been high on, or for that matter how the confounded things got up there in the first place.
I have been up the ladder; I have faced the unknown voids both above and below, in the Alcove and the Attic. It was House of Leaves fear, on a smaller scale, and I tell you one thing: I am never going up there again.