I work in a sewer.
The first question I always get asked is why? I grew up poor, and am still poor. I dropped out of high school to work. I’ve gone to prison a few times, not for long though. That doesn’t help my resume. I don’t have many friends, nor any financial support or employer recommendations. So I got stuck with a job working with the City of Phoenix, Arizona. In the sewer.
The second question I get is what do you even do in that kind of job? It’s not any actual picking around in wastewater or wading around in it, but more like inspecting. We often wander around open-air pipes doing two things. One is inspecting valves and pipe conditions, for leaks. These sewers were built decades ago. No fancy computers here, all analog. The second thing is finding, reporting, and removing blockages. Usually, the blockages were just the junk you’re not supposed to flush, like paper towels, soap, and food. Most were easy to clear, we have a tool that looks a little like a pitchfork that would break them up. But every once in a while, a big story about crazy things blocking pipes that would circulate between my coworkers. Animal remains, murder evidence, gadgets of all prices. The one I am going to recount is definitely the most famous though.
The story starts in a little neighborhood that was all by itself, pretty far out. I was called out on one of the hottest days of the year, something that would make any sewer worker groan. A fact we all know well is that heat intensifies smell. And with a smell, come bugs. Flies, beetles, grubs, gnats and other bottom-feeders of the insect world would come to feast. That wasn’t the worst part about this pipe though. The worst part was the spiders.
Specifically, cobweb spiders, as they are very common in Arizona. They were in the pipes because spiders love to live where bugs are, so naturally, large and scraggly sprawling nests are sometimes formed in sewer tunnels when it’s warm. Accounts of this are spread through word of mouth and I’d already heard some stories about this tunnel I’d been assigned to clear. Apparently, it’s “like a jungle,” because you would need a machete to get through the foliage of spider web. While this was an exaggeration, some workers actually tried to bring machetes with them.
Luckily for me, we had one or two government-issued hazmat suit looking things that I was allowed to use. They were made of pretty thick rubber, and while they were hard to move around, you became an impervious to bugs and their filth. I thought that this suit would the spider problem bearable when my turn came to take care of a blockage in “the spider tube.”
When I got the job report, it said the blockage was estimated to be pretty far down, and it would be quite a walk to get to it. I got ahold of one of those rubber suit things and the biggest flashlight I could find and got in my truck. I parked the truck and rolled the windows down so my seats didn’t melt. As I suited up, I considered just not wearing the suit because of the heat. I kept it on though, it’s usually cooler in the sewers.
Just as I had thought, it took me about 20 minutes to get to the halfway point. And then I started to see the spiders. At first, it was a few cobwebs in the nooks and crannies of the cracking concrete. Then the unorganized messes of silk extended out into the open, looking almost like huge dust bunnies. It didn’t really get to me though, I had seen enough gross things in this job, plus I had brought the suit. A little longer, and I decided to stop and pull the webs off my boots. Then I had to do that again. And again. Probably around the fifth time I pulled the webs off me, I gave up on it. It was about then that I noticed the increased density of the webs around me. When I looked backward, I could see the path I’d carved through the wall of web, that was lying close to the ground like a fog. A web mist that came up to my knees, and I’m not a small guy. I’d just waved the webs off until this point, but now that I was really looking at my surroundings, I realized why there were already stories about this place. I couldn’t turn back now though, it was another long walk back, and then I’d just have to come back later with, what? I already had the suit thing with me, I was the most prepared I’d ever be. Plus, my boss would be pissed if I just walked out in the middle of a job because “I got spooked.” So I kept walking.
So I’d finally reached the pipe with the blockage. It was in a large room, and there were much fewer spider webs here, only a few big ones in the ceiling corners. Now I need to describe what the room looks like. The blockage was in an elevated pipe that dumped water from another room down into a basin, which was in this room. and there was a small waterfall down from the pipe into the basin. Or, should be. Now nothing came out, the water had been stopped by something blocking this outlet pipe.
It looked like it would be fine for a few days, but the blockage did need to be cleared. So I got a good footing on the walkway and began stabbing at the pale, white-yellow blockage of the pipe. After clearing them for around 3 years, I’d say I’ve gotten pretty good at clearing, only took me a few minutes to get past the hard-on-the-outside, gooey-on-the-inside crust. As I worked my way around the edges, I could feel it coming loose, like an old scab that’s been picked at for a while. With every prod, poke and jerk with my pole, it wiggled and came closer to popping out of the tube. When it did, what was on the other side of the chuck almost made me fall into the basin with it.
It was an exoskeleton of a massive spider.
It’s hollow, clear legs were as long as mine, and the whole thing was probably the size of a bear. It was curled in such a way, with its abdomen in the blockage and its legs sticking out behind it, so that it looked like a squid. It was clear in my mind what had happened. The monstrous spider must have shed it somewhere down in that other pipe, and the exoskeleton had floated down the pipe, with the sewage until it got stuck in the hole leading to the basin.
I looked up from the exoskeleton that was slowly drifting in the basin and up at the pipe, where it had come from. I felt nauseous when thinking about what was on the other side of that concrete, and I work in a sewer for a living. I’ve seen some sick shit and not been the least bit lightheaded. I remember backing up very slowly, afraid I would fall over. The now flowing waterfall seemed too loud now. Like I wouldn’t be able to hear something creeping up on me over it. After what seemed like a long time but probably wasn’t, I turned my back to the exoskeleton in the basin. I half ran, half fell out of the open room and back down the entry tunnel. I made it only a dozen steps before I froze.
I couldn’t hear the waterfall.
The pipe was blocked again.
I swear I nearly pissed my pants then and there. I stood in that very spot for what was probably a minute or two and had a very thero thought to calm myself down. I very much wanted to get the fuck out of there, but I had the thought that if I didn’t clear the pipe, some poor other smuck would have too. Then I reasoned with myself that I had probably just saw a pattern that wasn’t there, it was a mere coincidence that the blockage was that shape.. So, I turned my head as far as I could, as slow as I could. I could see nothing with my peripheral vision, so I turned my body next, millimeter by millimeter, until I could see the pipe opening. But I saw nothing. No giant spider sitting in the reservoir, but no water coming out of the pipe either. With slightly more confidence, I turned the rest of the way around and began to walk toward the pipe to get a better look. As I shined my flashlight into the pipe, I almost dropped it out of shock and surprise.
It was the decaying corpse of a small dog, or maybe a racoon. It was hard to tell because most of the things fur was gone and parts were skeletal. Once I got over the initial shock, however, I calmed down. It was just some poor animal that had fallen down a manhole or something and had gotten stuck. Still twitching with adrenaline, I hoisted my hook and slid it into the pipe. I got the hook right under the things eye socket and tugged. Decaying animals tend to be somewhat gooey, and this is usually enough to slide it out. But when I pulled on the head of this corpse, it ruptured and disintegrated without actually sliding out. The adrenaline in my blood morphed the fright into anger, I started pulling and bashing the animal from every direction I could trying to get it out. At last, it started to slide out with the water coming from the other side.
I pulled my hook out, which let the light from my flashlight clearly shine in. And when it did, I saw the animal very clearly. I saw that its rotted entrails were slowly floating toward me in the water now trickling around the corpse. I noticed that they were pulsing. At first I thought it was a trick of the light, but looking close, the fear returned to drop my stomach back down to my boots. All over the animals insides, and now the pipe, were thousand of half dollar sized spiders. And what I thought was sinewy skin around organs, was thick spider silk around mounds of spiders. I dropped the hook and flashlight in a panic and ran toward the exit tunnel. I didn’t care about the pipe anymore because now I knew there really was something there. The thing I saw before couldn’t just be a coincidence, something that just looked like a spider. No, it had to be real. There was actual spiders, real living ones I could see, and that made all the difference.
I kept running for what felt like forever. The tunnel seemed so much longer and small because I thought that a silent monstrosity could be lurking behind me in the dark tunnel, or worse, chasing me. Eventually I reached a manhole ladder. At this point I was so out of breath and worse, baking hot because of the protective rubber suit I was wearing. I weakly climbed up out of the tunnel and out into the bright world and the fresh air. I unzipped and flopped out of the suit. I lay there on the sandy ground, looking up at the hot sun above me, panting. I thought about what just happened. What I would do next. But I didn’t really think about anything. My brain went in circles, just looping around the image of that egg sack inside the animal. I kept sitting there until I heard my radio chatter, through the truck’s windows I left open. It snapped my out of my stupor and I stood up, slowly, put my suit in the back, and hopped in the driver’s seat. I got back to home base and told the boss the blockage was cleared, and I needed some time at home. Usually she’s a hard ass about that kind of stuff, but this time she let me go. I think she saw how shook up I was, but she might have just been feeling nice.
Anyways, that’s where I am now. At home. At my computer. I don’t know what I’ll do next. I might try to get a different job, but I don’t know how I would. I try to think about the present, the future. But my brain is still stuck underground, in the tunnel, in the pipe. In that room beyond the pipe. And whatever was inside it.
Image from wikicommons – Skyfi [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D