Zack the Ripper
Zack the Ripper had no idea what he was looking at but he was not about to let that simple truth stand in his way. The device (whatever it was) was large and dark. It hung heavy from the basement ceiling, an ancient heating artifact from a time long gone. Zack the Ripper didn’t have a clue, so he began to mumble to himself. This was his reaction to any unfamiliar heating device. Stare, and mumble with authority. Then rip it out. This was always an easy decision to make because Zack the Ripper figured that if he didn’t know what something was, it couldn’t possibly be important. And if it wasn’t important, then it had no business being there. “Why mess with the unknown?” he said to the guys at the supply house. “It’s better to rip it all out and start from scratch.” Which is how he got his name.
“Any idea what this thing is?” David the Caretaker asked.
“Of course!” Zack the Ripper exclaimed. “I see these things all the time.”
“Well, what the heck is it then?” David asked, scratching his head.
Zack the Ripper pretended that he hadn’t heard David the Caretaker’s follow-up question because he needed a few moments to come up with a plausible name for this unknown hunk of cast iron. He feigned intense concentration and continued to mumble to himself with great authority.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Zack the Ripper said, turning his attention away from the strange device. “I was lost in concentration. I was thinking back to an earlier time – a time when men installed these devices every day of the week. Oh, what a time that must have been!”
“But what is it?” David the Caretaker again asked, his curiosity growing.
“It’s a Steamencabulator,” Zack the Ripper said in a matter-of-fact way. “It was patented by the Brooklyn Steam Company in 1920. Contractors used them in mansions like this one and they installed them when the building was being built because there was no way you could get them in afterwards. Look at the size of that thing. It’s obvious that you have to build the house around it. This Steamencabulator is as old as this house. There’s no doubt about that.”
“But this house was built in 1895,” David the Caretaker said. “You said the device was patented in 1920.”
“Oh,” Zack the Ripper said. And then, quickly recovering, he added, “Of course this particular Steamencabulator was one of the Brooklyn Steam Company’s early prototypes. I mentioned that. It’s obvious by the markings. I’m sure I mentioned that.”
David wasn’t sure if he had mentioned it. Maybe he had. Zack the Ripper was mumbling, and it was entirely possible that he had explained all of this already. David accepted that possibility. “And you’ve seen these before?” David asked, needing a bit of reassurance regarding Zack the Ripper’s ability to deal with a Steamencabulator.
“Oh, yes. Many, many times,” Zack the Ripper lied. “They’re very dangerous, you know. I strongly advise that you allow me rip it out and bust it up. It can cause terrible damage to the house if it’s left in, you see.”
“But this Steamencabulator has been here for more than a hundred years,” David the Caretaker said, concerned, but also confused. “The house has heated beautifully for all this time. We just have a little bit of knocking in the pipes now. That’s the only complaint that Mr. and Mrs. Vanderpool have. Why are you saying that this Steamencabulator is dangerous?”
Zack the Ripper went back to staring intently at the device and mumbling with even greater authority.
“Zack?” David said, but Zack was staring a hole through the device and mumbling faster than ever. “Zack?” David the Caretaker tapped him on the shoulder.
“Yes?” Zack the Ripper said, turning suddenly toward David, as if coming out of a trance. “I’m sorry. I was thinking back to an earlier time – a time when men installed these devices every day of the week. Oh, what a time that must have been!”
“Zack, how do you figure it’s dangerous. I mean, after all these years?”
Zack the Ripper stared at David the Caretaker. “David, there has been a recall,” he said with great authority. “Not the sort where you get a new Steamencabulator, or recompense in any way. It’s too late for that. They just say that all Steamencabulators must be removed from the field. And we should waste no time in doing so.” Zack the Ripper began to pace the boiler room with great urgency.
“Who says?” David the Caretaker asked, more confused than ever.
“Why, the company says,” Zack the Ripper replied.
“The Brooklyn Steam Company is still in business?” David the Caretaker asked. “After all these years? They’re still around?”
“Well, they’re not actually in business anymore. Not directly anyway. A company that was then bought by another company was bought and then they bought them, and you know how it goes with Wall Street and whatnot. It’s business. Mergers and acquisitions and mergers. Right?”
“Huh?” David the Caretaker said. “Well, I believe I have a memo back at my office. I got it some time ago. It’s an old memo, yellowed with age. I got it from my supplier. The memo clearly states that all Steamencabulators must be ripped out, busted up, carted away, and replaced with brand-new hot water heating systems. I can start ripping this stuff out first thing in the morning.”
“But how does a Steamencabulator work?” David the Caretaker asked. Zack turned his total attention back to the old iron device. He stared long and hard at it. Zack the Ripper would never let on that he didn’t know what he was looking at because he knew that this would indicate a serious state of technical weakness. And rich folks such as the Vanderpools, who could afford to have caretakers watch over their homes, didn’t do business with tradespeople who were technically weak. So, on most days, Zack the Ripper found himself lying a lot.
“How does it work?” David the Caretaker asked again.
“Generally it works just fine!” Zack the Ripper said. “But when they’re recalled they must come out. Like this one. Sixty-seven thousand five hundred dollars should do it. I can get started first thing in the morning. How does that sound?”
“I mean how does it operate?”
“It encabulates the steam, of course,” Zack the Ripper said simply. “Hence the name. These old systems required constant encabulation, hence the device. But this one is obviously no longer able to perform the encabulation function, and that’s why you have that banging noise that the Vanderpools are complaining about. It’s also the reason for the recall. I can start ripping it all out first thing in the morning. Sixty-seven thousand five hundred dollars. Sound good?”
Now, Zack the Ripper had said all of this so simply and with such authority that David the Caretaker was beginning to feel somewhat technically ignorant. He thought that he, David, should probably know what “encabulate” meant, but he had now gotten to the point where he was afraid to ask. He was, after all, the caretaker. He was supposed to know about stuff like the encabulation of steam and such. He was supposed to be a Jack of all Trades. If word got back to the Vanderpools that he didn’t fully understand the technical workings of their old home and its mechanical systems, well, then that would indicate a serious state of technical weakness. And rich folks such as the Vanderpools, who could afford to have caretakers, wouldn’t want a caretaker that was as dumb as a rock.
“I see,” David the Caretaker said. “Well, give me a moment to check with the Vanderpools and I’ll be right back to you."
Mr. Vanderpool was reading a novel in his study. David tapped on the door and approached. Mr. Vanderpool put down his book and gave David a broad smile. “Yes, David! Come in, come in. Have you gotten to the bottom of this noise problem we’re having?”
“Yes, I have, Mr. Vanderpool. The problem is with the Steamencabulator, which has been declared dangerous and must be removed immediately. The situation is quite perilous.”
“Oh, my! What shall we do?” Mr. Vanderpool asked with great concern.
“I have an expert in the basement right now and he can get stared ripping it out first thing in the morning.”
“By all means then, have the man do it!” Mr. Vanderpool instructed.
Before he was through, Zack the Ripper managed to squeeze another seventeen thousand bucks out of the job. He also got paid for removing a 300-gallon copper storage tank that had provided domestic hot water for five generations. “This tank is made from a very dangerous material!” Zack had explained David. “Look,” he said, holding a magnet to the side of the copper tank. “It’s so old that it’s lost its magnetism! It could explode at any moment.”
“Rip it out, Zack,” David had cried. “Please!”
So Zack the Ripper did.
If you liked this story, then you'll love The Contractor Stories by Dan Holohan.