Fried Catfish Sandwich, Sub Roll, Tomatoes, Slaw, Arugula, Lemon Caper Mayo
It may have occurred to some of you that I haven’t mentioned any contact with my apparitions in awhile. That’s because my last brush with the little girl/doll scared me pretty badly, so badly that I decided to regroup and try to figure things out the way I figure out plots of books that I am writing or planning to write. Second hand, one step removed, in my head rather than close enough to touch. In other words, I was staying in bed at night, even when I couldn’t sleep. It’s not pleasant to lie awake in the dark imagining things that could be going on not more than a few steps from where you are, but trust me, it’s a lot less pleasant to actually see them happening and touch them and be touched by them. One thing is in your imagination, the other is real.
But that doesn’t mean they go away just because you ignore them. It’s like hearing a strange noise coming from the engine compartment of your car; you can ignore it all you want, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to go away by itself. Eventually you’re going to have to do something about it.
Jason Longwell from Longwell Construction showed up the next morning at nine o’clock. This was somewhat unusual in that most of the workmen in my corner of North Carolina usually show up a couple of hours late. They call, say something’s come up and they’ll be there in an hour. Then two hours later they show up with big smiles and no explanation offered. Jason was also different in that he didn’t bring his wife or girlfriend with him. Most workmen usually have one in tow, a helper who hauls tools if they’re up a ladder and sits in the truck for hours at a time playing with their cell phones. I’ve given up telling these ladies they can sit in the house or on the porch while they wait; they never take me up on it.
Jason came to the front door and rang the doorbell. The doorbell is at least a hundred years old, and you operate it by squeezing together two small handles that vibrate a ringer in the ornate bell inside the door. It’s loud.
Jason and I stood outside while he pulled on a white, one-piece coverall with a hood. The suit appeared to be made out of paper. There were deep pockets on both legs. He finished off the outfit with a pair of thin latex gloves. He explained that he would examine the entire lower space and would evaluate all the pillars and anything else that might impact the structural integrity of the underpinnings. Remembering Mark’s bout with the flea bites, I pointed out once again there were lots of bugs under there. He laughed at me.
“There’s fleas everywhere in the south,” he said. “They carry typhus and a host of other diseases. No one has found bubonic plague in this part of the country yet, but I’ll bet that’s only because they’re not looking hard enough. There are probably fifteen varieties of fleas under there, plus assorted other biting and stinging insects, maybe snakes, skunks, possums, groundhogs, rabid cats and dogs and who knows what else. This suit will keep out the bugs, but if you hear me get into a fight with a rabid skunk, call the cops.” He laughed at my expression, but he didn’t say he was joking. Jason was a serious guy. He also seemed to know a lot about insects. He pulled on a respirator.
“Shouldn’t take me more than an hour.” Without further ado, he opened the low wooden door at the front of the porch and scooted under the house.
I sat on the swing on the porch and waited. Sometimes I could hear him knocking around, but mostly it was quiet. Out on the street I watched the usual dog walkers stroll past; it seems like every household in Hillsborough has a dog. I wondered how many of them were carrying around typhus-infected fleas. I waved at those people and dogs who looked over at me. Just another old retired guy, sitting on his porch watching life pass him by.
Just shy of an hour, Jason crawled out and stood up. He was filthy. He held up a warning hand when I started down the steps.
“No need to get close. I’m going to my truck and peel this thing off and bag it. Do you want the report written up, or can I just give you the news?”
“An oral report is fine,” I said.
“OK, meet me at the Penny at noon. I’ve got to get a shower and disinfect. You can buy me a beer and an order of chicken wings. And bring a check for a hundred dollars.” With that, he headed off to his truck. I stood on the steps and watched as he shed his papery exo-skin, shoved it into a heavy black plastic bag, added his gloves and tied it tight. He threw the bag in the back of the truck, climbed in and drove off.
While I was standing there, I thought about how Jason had just earned a hundred dollars for crawling around for a bit less than an hour. Pretty good pay, except you couldn’t get me under there for that amount of time for less than a thousand dollars and probably not even then.
The Penny was relatively uncrowded. Jason was already there, sitting at one of the small tables sipping a beer and looking at his cell phone. I squeezed in on the other side and nodded to the Big Guy when he came up. I checked my list of 69 drinks, ordered a Bulleit rye and two orders of wings, one for each of us. The wings hot sauce of the day was labeled Sweet Lava, so I asked for mine to be brought on the side. Jason put away his phone.
“What’s the news?” I asked. BG slid my shot glass to me across the table and said the wings would be up shortly. The Bulleit was good, but, as always, too sweet and too smooth. Not cheap enough for my taste. As far as I’m concerned, rye has a certain low-rent reputation that it should maintain.
“You’ve got problems. There are ten pillars, and five of them are seriously deteriorated. One of the brick ones is crumbling to dust, something I’ve never seen before. They’re built out of everything that was near to hand back then: brick, cinder blocks, piles of rocks and even this.” He reached into a pack I hadn’t noticed at his feet and pulled out an old bottle that contained a deep brown liquid. He put it on the table. “I cleaned it up for you.”
The bottle was light green and three quarters full. There was no indication of a label or any sort of embossed writing on the thick glass. I picked it up and turned it around. It was heavier than it looked.
“This was jammed into one of the pillars in place of a brick, but I worked it free. I replaced it with a regular brick. It’s probably a homemade whiskey bottle with homemade whisky. It’s too big to be a medicine bottle but the style is very similar. I’ve come across them before under these old houses, but it’s rare to find one that still has a sealed cork and the contents intact. They’re not really worth anything except as curiosities. Did you bring the check?” I handed him a check for a hundred dollars. He glanced at it, folded it and tucked it into his shirt pocket.
“That’s good, because this is the last you’re going to see of me.”
“I thought you said I had five pillars that need to be replaced.”
“That’s right, except I’m not the guy who’s going to replace them. You’ve also got a pipe that’s partially wrapped in asbestos. Part of the wrapping is on the ground, which means it’s friable. It’s not dangerous to you as long as you don’t stir it around, but that’s going to happen if you send workmen under there. You’ll have to have the guys in spacesuits come in and take the asbestos and the dirt out. Why didn’t you tell me you’ve got someone else working down there?”
He had lost me now. “What? I don’t.”
“There are two holes down there, fresh digs. About six inches deep. They’re on the far side of the house. What are you looking for, buried treasure?” His tone of voice was pretty snotty.
“I’m not looking for anything.”
“Now you’re pissing me off. There’s something wrong here, but I don’t know what it is. It feels real creepy under there. I’ve been in a hundred, probably more, weird old crawl spaces. I usually enjoy looking around and coming up with things like old liquor bottles. But your crawl space? Yours is different. It just feels wrong. And there’s the matter of the holes in the ground. You planning on burying something down there? Something you don’t want anyone to see?”
Now he was pissing me off. “If I was, why would I hire you to go under there and see the evidence of my nefarious activities?”
“I don’t know, Mr. Appel. That’s a very good question.” He gathered up his pack, slipped his phone in his pocket, and stood up. “Don’t call me again. I could notify the cops, but I guess I won’t. Not yet, anyway.” He turned and walked out of the bar.
The Big Guy set two orders of wings on the table. I had forgotten I ordered them. All of a sudden I had lost my appetite.