For several weeks before Christmas my wife kept complaining that she had broken the handle of her toilet, and every time she wanted to flush it she had to reach down through the water in the tank and pull the chain that releases the water into the bowl.
I kept telling her I would call the plumber, but I kept putting it off because I couldn't find time.
"Maybe you could fix it yourself," she suggested.
This was heresy. It is my philosophy, and she knows it, that household repairs are best left to the experts. In the end, it will cost you more money and more grief if you try to do it yourself.
But she kept after me and finally I thought, what the heck, maybe I could fix it myself. I took a look at it. What had broken was the long plastic lever that is raised when you turn the handle, thus raising the chain attached to its end and in turn raising the rubber ball that closes the valve to the bowl.
Simple enough. It was something I understood. I knew you could buy such parts at hardware stores. Cost a dollar or two. I decided to fix it myself.
I went to the hardware store and bought a new handle with a brass lever attached. No plastic for me this time. The package also had a nut to lock it in. It said all you needed was a monkey wrench and a pair of pliers. It was $3.99.
I took it home, removed the old handle, slipped the lever through the hole in the tank, screwed the nut on, attached the chain to the end of the lever and flushed the toilet. Worked fine.
Except that the rubber ball that is supposed to close the valve wouldn't fall. The water kept rushing out and the tank wouldn't refill.
I called our plumber, Pat Connors. They have been doing our plumbing ever since my wife retired from it. I talked to a man named Jim.
"What's the trouble?" he asked.
I told him. We had some difficulty with terminology. I described the rubber ball that wouldn't drop.
'You mean the flapper ," he said. "That's a flapper, not a ball."
"OK," I said, "the flapper doesn't drop."
"Well, it ought to," he said.
"I know that," I said, "but it doesn't."
He told me what to do, step by step. I was reminded of that scene in "Airplane!" where Robert Stack, in airport flight control, is telling the stewardess how to bring in the stricken airliner, step by step.
He stayed on the phone while I followed his procedures. The flapper wouldn't drop. I came back and told him. He said maybe the new lever was raising the flapper too high. I should try bending it down. "But don't crack the tank," he cautioned.
I tried bending the lever down, without first taking it out of the tank. The tank cracked. I went back to the phone.
"I cracked the tank," I said."
"You didn't!" he exclaimed.
"What do I do now?" I asked, already sensing that it was going to be expensive.
"What kind of a fixture is it?" he asked.
I told him I'd look. I couldn't find any name.
"There has to be a name," he said. "Every manufacturer has to put his label on every fixture. Look on the bowl just back of the seat."
I looked. There was no label. He told me to took inside the tank lid. I looked. No label.
I remembered that when we had added my wife's bathroom there was a strike in the bathroom fixture industry, and we had had to bootleg the toilet from Mexico.
Jim said, "Well, I guess you'll have to come into the shop and pick out a new fixture."
"You can't put a new tank on the old bowl?" I said.
"No way. That would be like trying to put a Volkswagen engine in a Cadillac."
I drove over to the shop. Jim was there. He showed me two fixtures. One was a European style with a tank that narrowed toward the bottom, like a wasp waist. It was $155. The other was a one-piece style with a low tank. It was $400.
"This one is silent," Jim said, "and it will never overflow. See, the tank is as low as the bowl. Water seeks its own level. So it can't overflow."
I couldn't remember that my wife's toilet had ever overflowed, but it was a point.
He let me use his telephone to consult with my wife. I told her I had broken her tank and described the two new fixtures to her and asked her which one she wanted.
She couldn't make up her mind. At first she thought the less noisy number couldn't be worth $250 more. Then she said just a minute, and evidently she explained her dilemma to one of her fellow workers. It turned out this person had one of the silent models and thought it was wonderful.
"I don't know," my wife said finally. "Why don't you decide?"
Of course her fellow worker had already decided for her.
I told Jim, "I guess we'll take the $400 model."
He said they'd be over to install it that afternoon.
Including installation, the bill was $516.72. Plus, of course, the $3.99.
Jim was sympathetic.
"Don't worry," I told him. "It's her Christmas present."