Top Round Melt, White Cheddar, Grilled Onion, Umami Mayo, Peppers. On Rye.
Talisker was the favorite Scotch of Robert Lewis Stevenson. In his poem, The Scotsman’s Return From Abroad, he writes. “The king o’ drinks, as I conceive it, Talisker, Isla, or Glenlivet!” Stevenson, the author of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Treasure Island and other adventure books, all of which I devoured as a young man, was a sickly child, afflicted with tuberculosis from an early age. He died, 42 years old, in 1894. After writing Jekyll and Hyde, his wife Fanny threw the manuscript into the fire because she thought it was beneath him. Stevenson spent the next three days lying in bed rewriting the book all over again. That’s ten thousand words a day, which is pretty good for a tuberculosis sufferer. Or very good for any other writer. The book was a bestseller, and for the first time Robert and his wife Fannie had enough money to live on. Perhaps I should ask my wife to throw a few of my manuscripts into the fire.
Noticing that the Penny was relatively uncrowded, Sherry and I ducked in for a drink on a Thursday evening. Josh, the waiter, fetched me a Talisker Scotch that I ordered for no good reason other than it was on the list. I couldn’t remember if I had ever had it before. It was another good one, though a bit on the sweet side. I don’t remember top-shelf Scotch being as sweet as the last few I have ordered from the list. Perhaps the style now is to lean toward sweetness. Somehow I can’t imagine a crusty old Scotsman from years past sitting in a smoky pub with his mates, having a dram of whiskey as sweet as these modern versions.
An odd thing happened the other night.
I tend to wander around in the middle of the night when I should be sleeping. This is especially true if I’m working on a novel, or some other piece of intensive writing. This blog qualifies. All my writer friends will understand. When one is in the clutches of a project, particularly a novel, the imagination does not rest. Your writing brain is at work even when you’re not actively thinking or physically working on the project. This is also true when you are asleep. Sometimes I’ll wake up and turn on a light to make a note of an idea that I don’t want to forget, and sometimes I’ll even get out of bed and sit down and write for as long as I can stay awake. Other times I just lay in the dark and think.
So I was awake around 3:00 AM. I always know the time because the house is full of clocks: the clocks themselves and those on all the appliances. I say I was wandering around in the dark, but all the little LEDs give off enough light to keep me from stumbling, so it’s never really pitch dark.
I climbed quietly out of bed, put my robe on and crept down the stairs. I know the number seven stair creaks, so I make sure to tread on the outer edge where it doesn’t make any noise. Being married to a writer is enough punishment for my poor wife; I don’t want to add waking her up at night to all the other annoyances.
Safely downstairs, I went back down the hallway that separates the two rooms in the ancient core of the house, back to the kitchen where I drew a glass of water from the refrigerator door. I stood, holding my cool glass, looking out the window into our fenced back yard, which is brightly lit by a streetlight that hangs over my neighbor’s house.
Some nights I see our resident fox slinking through the backyard, a graceful, low-silhouetted form. This night, all was quiet.
I went back down the hall to the TV room and sat in one of the “easy” chairs there, planning to think about where I was with my 69 Drinks blog. Sometimes the cat jumps up in my lap. This night she didn’t. Sweetie, the cat, is all black, and she’s damn light on her little cat feet, so it usually gives me a start when she jumps up that way in the dark. I pulled a light blanket off the couch and draped it over my legs and settled back. I began to think about where I was going with the blog and the possible connections between whatever drink I’m writing about and my life.
I needed to go to the bathroom.
To get to the bathroom, I had to cut through my wife’s office, which is a small, attached room at the front of the house. A set of old, wavy glass windows look out onto the front yard. We’ve never figured out what this room originally was, we think maybe a porch or the original kitchen.
I was halfway across this dark room when a glint of light caught my eye. I looked down. There are cracks between the floorboards, cracks that I didn’t know were there. I could see a bright white light shining through these cracks.
I have to admit, this gave me a second’s, what? Fright? Yes! My heart lurched and skipped a few beats.
At first I thought maybe there was a fire underneath the house, but the light was, as I said, bright white. Flames are orange and flickering. I bent down on my arthritic knees. I leaned close to the floor, but all I could see was the bright light glinting toward me through the cracks between three or four boards over the space of a couple of feet. Nothing else. I thought about this for a few minutes and since nothing seemed to be moving around down there (thank God) I climbed to my feet and went back to my chair. I have learned to check the chair before sitting down in the dark, sweeping my hand over the cushion and pillows, searching for any black cats lying there invisible in the night. You really don’t want to sit on a black cat in a dark room late at night; the resulting yowl will scare the shit out of you and wake the entire household, meaning Sherry sleeping innocently upstairs.
I sat in my chair. I kept sneaking looks into my wife’s office, though I couldn’t see anything of note. By that I mean I couldn’t see, from this vantage point, any lights coming from beneath the house from the crawl space. My heart calmed down.
Let me give you a short lecture on what a crawl space is, particularly here in the south and even more particularly its nature when it lies beneath a very old house.
Short version: because of soil composition, basements are more difficult to build and to keep structurally sound in the south. So houses have foundation walls and what are called pillars, usually three or four feet high, propping up the floor joists. The space beneath the floor of the house and the soil is called the crawl space. For obvious reasons. It’s too low to stand, so if you’re going to maneuver around you have to crawl. In general, no one goes under there unless something needs to be repaired, i.e. plumbing, heating and air conditioning units or vents, electrical or the cable guy. No one ever wants to go under these old houses, and I don’t blame them. It’s dirty and coming face to snout with a creature — mouse, rat, raccoon, snake or other beast — is always possible. I don’t know how tough you are, but even the roughest workmen don’t like to get under there.
I’ve been in the main area of our crawl space, where, for a few feet in either direction, you can almost stand up. That’s where the heater and air conditioner are housed.
The area under Sherry’s office is not stand-upable. The area under the office shouldn’t have anything but ductwork. It shouldn’t have a light, and it doesn’t have one that I’m aware of.
And yet it obviously does.
By now it was nearly four A.M. and I couldn’t think of anything to do about the light right then. I didn’t think there was any danger. Look at it tomorrow, I thought.
I fell asleep in my chair.
I woke up in an hour, sleepy and confused. I shuffled back into Sherry’s office. The light beneath the floorboards was still there. I hadn’t imagined it. I went to bed.
The next day I woke up early, pulled on my old jeans and went scouting. I found, right beneath the windows of Sherry’s office, a low wooden door with a latch that allowed access to the crawl space. I pulled the door open, laid down on the ground and scootched my torso halfway under the house. I found that there is indeed a light bulb hanging from a wire right beneath where I saw the light last night. There is no timer involved, nothing fancy, just a bare light bulb with a small chain pull. The light was off.
I pulled the chain and the light came on. I pulled the chain and the light went off. I crawled back outside, closed the door, dusted myself off and went inside the house.
Since that night the light has remained off.
I have several questions.
- Who turned the light on?
- Could it have been a workman? Could it have been the inspector who did the inspection when we bought the house? It could have been a plumber or electrician from before we bought the house. It could have been any one of a number of folks who had access to the crawlspace. But that’s not what I really want to know. After I saw the light on last night, my real question is…
- Who turned the light off?