Picture Post Two

Last week I gave you a guided tour of the exterior of my house and some photos I took in the part of the crawlspace that is easy to access. And I promised photos and a tour of my foray into the more difficult area on the opposite side of the house. This expedition, last week and this week, came about in an attempt to locate the entry point the squirrels (as noted in last post) were using in their exploratory missions into my house. As far as I knew, the three that I caught were scouts sent ahead to reconnoiter my territory and probe for weak spots in my perimeter. Evidently they found at least one, otherwise I would not have had to catch them for three days running. Unless I located this breach and sealed it, it was possible that I would wake up some morning with a hundred marauding squirrels running amok in my house. Sort of like Hitchcock’s The Birds, only with outdoor tree rodents.

One of the curious things about the house is that when one is standing outside looking at it, it’s almost impossible to visualize the interior. Even if you live here. I can tell you, as I have in several posts, that there is an entire two room schoolhouse buried inside, but even I have a tough time figuring out exactly where it is when I’m outside the house. Even when I’m inside I have trouble figuring it out. The house is like one of those M. C. Escher drawings where stairs go up, or do they go down? Which is the ceiling? And which is the floor?

optical-illusion-art-1

Outside, on the opposite side of my house…

crawlspace exterior side

The window you see looks into the kitchen. The low door is the entrance to the crawlspace where I believe the squirrels are breaking into my domain. The pink insulation and pottery are my laughable attempts to block this door.

Open the door.

crawlspace side

Now I’m going to get down and crawl inside. From the ground to the joists I have about 24 inches of space. I have to drag myself forward by my elbows. I’m breathing dirt and 175 years of dust. I stopped and took this picture.

crawlspace pillars

This is the clearest picture of two of the pillars closest to me; I took it using the telephoto on the camera, so I’m not really as close as it looks like I am. Although my entire body is underneath the house. You can see how the house has settled and pushed the front pillar to one side. That’s four layers of brick and some old lumber holding up the house. Note the partially obscured white cinder block at the right side of the picture.

crawlspace 2

I have now hauled myself closer to the cinder block. I stop for a breather. Let me paint you a word picture…

You’ve seen those films on Nat Geo specials of faraway beaches where enormous sea lions are involved in frightening mating rituals? Where they drag their tons of blubber around the beach, thrashing, braying and snorting? That’s me underneath the house. At this point I realized I’m as far in as I’m going to get. I’m exhausted, and I really don’t like the looks of that roll of material that is tucked into one of the three openings in that cinderblock. It looks like metal sheathing, but I really don’t know what it is. All I know is, I’m done.

Slowly, slowly, I inch my way backward. “Ork! Ork!” (sound of floundering sea lion). I’m finally outside, lying on the ground, in the sun, gasping.

Mark is laughing at me.

Later on, at the Lead Penny, after a shower and a change of clothes, going through the pictures on my phone, I realized that I forgot to look for the holes where the squirrels were getting in. And I forgot to look for the freshly dug pits that the inspector said were there. The truth is, when you’re under there you forget about everything that’s not an inch under your nose or a few inches over your head. Maybe there’s something in the atmosphere that clouds the mind.

At any rate, I’m not going back under there again. At least not voluntarily.

Here’s my last picture of the night; well, almost the last picture.

doors

It’s the end of a long day under the house. I’ve showered and had dinner. We have watched television and now it’s time for bed. In this picture, the television set (unseen) is to my left. I am on the couch looking into Sherry’s office, which also opens into a bathroom that is attached to one of the two rooms of the old schoolhouse. Note the doors. I believe in one of my earlier blogs I pointed out that every door in the house, even the closet doors, had locks on them. The question being: were the locks there to keep something in? Or something out? If you were to go through these doors you see here you would be circling around the old schoolhouse rooms. It’s very confusing. Remember the Escher drawing at the beginning of this post?

Last week I promised you a picture of the ol’ Ghostbuster in his late-night exploring garb. I took this at three AM this morning in the upstairs bathroom before I headed down to see if the light was on beneath the floorboards.

ghostbuster 3-AM

While I’m there I intend to listen for sounds of digging. And to look around the rest of the downstairs. Here’s the thing, I’ve got this strange feeling that maybe the little girl has come into the house. Maybe she sent the squirrels in first to scout the way, or just to annoy me. Does she really need a hole to get through the floor? I don’t think so. OK, ready to go.

What’s that noise?

Picture Post One

It’s been an interesting week, but then every week is interesting around here. Sometimes I wish things were less interesting. I remained upstairs at night, ignoring the creatures that are living, if living is the right word, beneath my house. Since I didn’t go to them, they came to me. For three days I was under a squirrel attack.

I spotted the first one early in the week while walking through the TV room toward Sherry’s office. I glanced over at the gas-fired stove in the fireplace and there was a squirrel spread-eagled on the glass inside staring at me, tail twitching. I almost had a heart attack. It wasn’t that I particularly fear squirrels, but those of you who read these pages know I have a hell of a lot of them and they behave in very unusual ways. I believe I referred to them as Piranha squirrels, standing at attention in my backyard at night, eyes gleaming, waiting for me to step outside so they could strip the flesh from my bones.

I had no idea how this creature ended up in the heater, but the obvious answer was it came down the chimney, even though I thought the heater was self contained and only vented through a small pipe. One thing I did know was I needed to get it out of the house before Sherry saw it because she was definitely going to freak if she stumbled over it. I’m going to try and keep this squirrel saga short, so bear with me.

I went to the mudroom and got my heavy leather gloves and a broom. When I got back to the TV room the squirrel was sitting in the middle of the rug looking at me, tail still twitching. I gave it a whack with the broom, and it ran back under the heater and inside. I drove to Home Depot and bought a small Have-A-Heart trap, set it up in front of the heater and went to the kitchen to eat lunch. In five minutes I had caught a squirrel. I finished my sandwich then released it back out into the back yard and called a chimney sweep to come check the cap on the chimney. Let’s cut this thing short. The next morning I came downstairs and Sweetie, the cat, was sitting a foot away from a cute little baby squirrel. Neither of them seemed particularly frightened of each other. I got an old towel, threw it over the baby squirrel, carried it outside and turned it loose.

The next morning there was a full-grown squirrel sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor looking at me. After chasing the animal behind the refrigerator I got my trap and set it up. For three hours I could hear the squirrel banging around behind the stove, but no luck with the trap. After awhile, the squirrel came out and sat up on one of the stove burners, just looking at me. I got my towel and we went on a merry chase resulting in the breaking of a treasured tea pot. Eventually I got him/her in the towel and took him/her outside.

Clearly, I had to do something.

Aside from the chimney squirrel, I think they were coming in through a hole somewhere in the floor of the house, probably under the kitchen, maybe behind the stove. If I could find the hole, I could patch it; no more squirrels in the house. Unless these were spirit squirrels sent by the demon child, which was a possibility, but not one I wanted to entertain. At least not yet.

I was going to have to conquer my fears and make a foray under the house. I geared up like Rambo: long sleeve shirt, old jeans tucked into heavy socks, world’s brightest flashlight, cell phone to call for help on and take pictures with. (Because many of you have been writing asking to see some pictures, saying you were having trouble envisioning the scenes as I report them.) Fair enough. Two birds with one stone: look for squirrel entry points and snap some photos to put up here. Also I wanted to see if I could find the two dig sites the crawlspace inspector had been so snotty about last week.

I went and got Mark. His job was to drag me out from under the house if I got into trouble, or at least call the fire department to come rescue me. We briefly entertained the notion of tying a rope around my ankles so he could drag me out himself, but it seemed kind of crazy. After all, it was the middle of the afternoon, not three AM in the morning. The worst that could get me was the bugs. I sprayed myself with a heavy layer of bug repellent.

Rather than cut straight to the crawlspace scene, I’m going to start at the beginning and give you a tour of the various places I’ve been talking about. So gather around, children, pay close attention…

This is the Daisy Lynch house. house long view

It has a large front lawn and big back yard, almost a full acre. The smallish addition to the left of the front is the room where Sherry has her office, and the floor where I first saw the light through the floorboards and where I can hear the digging at night. Here’s a closer look at this feature.exterior Sherry's office

Note the chimney on the left of this room. I think this may be one of the keys to the mystery of the house. If you were to walk around the house on the side where the chimney is you would come to the main access to the crawlspace and the larger area where the furnace resides, beneath the house.

The thing about the chimney is, several months after we moved in I was looking out the window in the upstairs bedroom at the chimney when I realized that although there was a fireplace in almost every room of the house, there was none in Sherry’s office. The wall where the fireplace should have been was completely blank. What was the chimney there for?

If you go down the steps into the “basement” area…large door to crawlspace

The chimney should open up on the right of the floor around the corner, except it doesn’t. Whatever was originally there has been bricked up. steps into crawlspace

If you turn to the right at the bottom of the steps you are faced with this wall which I believe was the first room to be built and part of the foundation. It’s obvious that it’s very old. The (unseen) bricked up fireplace is to your right.crawlspace 4

If you look to the left of the last picture and climb under various joists and ductwork you will face another of the original stonework walls and this view into the actual crawlspace beneath the house. The pillar on the right is one of the oldest. It’s not a cinder block, those are very large stones that have been carved from, well, stone.crawlspace 3

If you were to (carefully) step backwards this is what you would see. More of the old wall built around this odd semi-underground room. You can stand upright with your head into the insulation in this area. This is the light that is turned on and off by some entity that I have not yet identified. I can see this light through the floorboards in Sherry’s office at night, when it is on.crawlspace light on

This is going on longer than I intended, so I’m going to break it up into two posts. Next week I’ll show you the pictures I took when I climbed into the crawlspace on the other side of the house, looking for squirrel entry sites.

Here a picture of the baby squirrel I caught.

baby squirrel

 

And here’s another picture I took. Just for fun.

pig

 

Any questions? I can take more pictures if there’s anything you want to see in particular. Make sure you tune in next week because I’m including a picture taken at 3:00AM of the old ghostbuster himself as he sets off in the night looking for trouble.

Eighteen

BULLEIT RYE

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.

Seventeen

MELLOW CORN

Reuben: Sliced Corned Beef, Russian Dressing, Kraut, Swiss, Marbled Rye

One of the reasons we moved to Hillsborough was that it has a small, tightly controlled historic district. If you were lucky enough to find a home within this district, you are pretty much assured you can walk to the “downtown” area. One of my prime directives to our real estate agent when we were looking for a house was that I could walk to the several excellent bars and restaurants on the main street and crawl home after having a couple or more drinks. For the last thirty-plus years, living in Maryland, I put up with the possibility of getting nailed with a DWI on the drive home after having a drink or two. This happened to several of my friends, and the result is costly in many different ways. For years I have carried the business card of a DWI lawyer in my wallet in case the police ever picked me up. I have never used it, but it was always a comfort to know that Lenny the DWI lawyer was only a phone call away.

Understand, I am not in favor of drunk driving. Understand, I have little sympathy with those who drink beyond the legal limit and climb into their cars and drive home. Understand, there have been times I have had too much to drink and was probably legally drunk and have driven, and I was just lucky that nothing untoward happened. Lucky, lucky, lucky. There but for the grace of God go I.

So I walked down to the Penny.

My route takes me right by the Ashburn School historic property, and as I passed I looked up the hill to the gardens, searching for the mysterious Rafe. I couldn’t see anyone, so rather than loiter I continued on. I soloed at the Penny for an afternoon drink. Elsewhere I have noted that drinking alone in the afternoon is probably not a good idea, but as long as one doesn’t make it a habit I think I’ll be all right. I believe the kids call this Day Drinking. The Big Guy behind the bar recommended a shot of Mellow Corn, which he explained was their house whiskey, 100 proof. It sounded ok to me. If it’s on the list, it sounds ok to me.

While waiting for the drink to arrive, I Googled “Mellow Corn” because I had never heard of it before. It turns out it’s a corn whiskey, a lesser label from Heavenly Hill, the distillery that also makes the brands Elijah Craig and Pikesville Rye. Corn whiskey is not a commonly known distilling process. The whiskey must contain at least 80% corn in its mash and must be aged at least two years. These scant requirements do not usually lead to a well-regarded whiskey. Mellow Corn, according to the Heavenly Hill website, is extra-aged to four years in used oak barrels that have previously held the distillery’s more expensive, more highly regarded labels. I checked a few other sites and found that the bottle sports a garish yellow label and an economical $12 price tag, which is probably the reason it’s the house whiskey here at the Penny. Most people don’t drink their whiskey straight, so once you mix it with pretty much anything else who’s going to notice the quality?

The Big Guy put a shot glass with a generous pour on the battle-scarred table in front of me. I tasted it. To my uncultured palette, it tasted like a perfectly respectable example of the bourbon genre. A bit harsh, yes, but that’s the way I like my liquor as often as not. In fact, if you blindfolded me I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between Mellow Corn and many of the other examples I’ve tasted over the last months. Actually, I probably could tell the difference, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. A few more hits and it still went down just fine. I’ve never seen it in a liquor store, but if I do I’m going to pick up a couple of bottles. You sure as hell can’t beat the price.

I finished up my drink, made sure the Big Guy had initialed Mellow Corn on my list of 69 drinks, and moseyed back up the hill toward home.

As noted earlier, the Ashburn School residence is directly on my route, situated atop a long grassy hill easily visible from the street. The local garden club, of which my wife Sherry is a proud member, has placed a very nice wrought-iron bench in front of the residence at the bottom of the hill where stumblebums like me can stop and rest while making their trek home from the Penny. So it didn’t look odd for me to be sitting on the bench, casually gazing up the hill at the school property.

After about an hour, just when I was about to fall asleep, I noticed someone working in the garden at the side of the house. Since the worker looked to be male, I knew it wasn’t Betty, and could only assume this was Rafe of whom Betty had spoken. I walked up Union Street and cut over behind the Ashburn residence. A pleasant-looking African American fellow of maybe early middle-aged years looked up from where he was digging and smiled at me.

I introduced myself and he said, “You live in the house over on Orange Street that was built around the original schoolhouse.” Mildly surprised, I said that indeed I did, and that I was interested in the history of the house and that Betty had said he was something of an expert on the Ashburn House and its early origins.

“If I’m an expert it’s only because I’ve worked here for a couple of years. I’m interested in history and slavery days in Hillsborough, focusing on the period right before the Civil War. And this is as good a place as any to get a feel for the way it was. Because the Ashburn School was well-known, then and now, there are materials that exist that give evidence that might have been lost otherwise.”

He was dressed in kind of a uniform, in that he was wearing a matching shirt and pants, chino in color, the sort of outfit that a guy wielding a professional weed whacker might be sporting. With the logo of his company and the name Joe stitched under it. Or in this case, Rafe, except there was no name patch. He was soft-spoken and had a scholarly demeanor. When he spoke, you could tell there was more to him than appeared on the surface. I liked him.

“Do you know where my inner house was built?” I asked. “When it was part of the school, on this property?” He nodded and motioned me to walk with him. He put down his spade and we walked around the far side of the house, the side that faces Union Street. The Ashburn residence was large, much larger than my house. It was essentially rectangular; the width in the front looked from the outside to be about as wide as a large sitting room, a hall, and a dining room, side by side. Rafe gestured to the exterior wall of the house in front of where we were standing.

“This is an addition,” he said. “They expanded the original house in the early 1850’s. At that time the original two-room schoolhouse, your schoolhouse, was right here where we’re standing, with just a walkway between the main house and the entrance to the school house. I don’t know why they sold the house and moved it, but it was bought by a man named Lemuel Lynch, a well-respected silversmith. He was also the Mayor of Hillsborough at one time and was well known for restoring the clock in the tower of the town hall. That’s the general wisdom on the origin of your house.” He frowned. “Except I’m not sure that’s the way it went, at least not exactly. I believe the schoolhouse was given to the architect/builder who did the renovations, a local man named John Berry, maybe to settle part of the cost of doing the renovations. Then he sold it to Lemual Lynch.”

I asked him how he knew this. Ted the top man at the Ashburn School hadn’t bothered to tell me any of it.

“I Googled your address. I used a computer at the library. There’s a book of historical plats, deeds that have been registered over the years, it goes way back to the early 1800s. Lemuel Lynch’s name is the first one to show up on the property that is now your address.”

I was about to ask him more about the original structure when we heard a rapping on the window from inside the house. It was Ted Jackson. He was pointing at Rafe and gesturing for him to come inside.

“Ah, good old Ted,” I said. “He’s probably pissed that I’ve taken you away from your work.”

Rafe gave a little laugh and shook his head. “I’ll go see what he wants.”

“Could you come over to the house?” I asked. “Maybe you could tell me more if you could see it inside. Can I get your cell number?”

“Sure. But I don’t have a cell phone. I can’t do it today, but just come by. If I’m here I’ll come over.”

“If Ted approves,” I said.

“Mr. Ted’s not so bad. There’s been worse here.” He wasn’t laughing now. He gave me a long look, as if he were measuring something in me. “There’s been men here who were terrible. Who did terrible things.”

He went up the steps to the porch and inside.

I walked home, thinking about what Rafe had said. His parting words: Men who did terrible things. So far I’ve been pretty successful at compartmentalizing the several aspects of my house: the interesting historical pieces on the one hand and the falling, animated rag dolls on the other. I certainly wasn’t going to tell Rafe my story of nightly lights, nocturnal digging, the falling doll, the doll hiding in the shed, the doll who spoke to me through sewed-up lips. He’d think I was crazy.

I wouldn’t blame him. It sounded crazy. I wondered, not for the first time, if this is what crazy feels like, trying to keep two disparate realities together in your head at the same time: the real and the unreal. I feel like if I try to justify the two, force them together, believe them both equally, I will, well, you know. Drive myself crazy.

 

Sixteen

NOAH’S MILL

Sweet n Spicy BBQ Chicken Sub W/ Cheddar Bacon + Red Onion

I’m having a drink. You know where I am. Sometimes, these days, I’m not sure what I’d do without the Penny and my list. It’s become, in a way, like having a job, a place to go to. A purpose. I know, that sounds ridiculous, drinking my way through a list of liquor is like having a job, but it gives some structure, at least to write about, and a respite from the continuing saga of random experiences that I have no explanation for.

I’m at my usual table when I’m alone, in the back of the room, not that the back of the room is much more private than any other table in any other part of the Penny. The Big Guy picked a drink off the list and brought it to me without any discussion. He seems to know that when I’ve got my notebook open and my pen out that I’m not interested in any discussion of the merits of one spirit over the other. Funny that they refer to liquors as spirits, I never thought of that. Funny, yeah, Ha Ha.

(Note to self: When I’m back at my desktop computer, look up the reason they call liquors spirits.)

(Later note to self: After returning to my desk and Googling this question, I found there are a number of reasons for the etymology of the word. I will enter the discussion at the end of this post. It is actually germane, which is frightening as well as interesting.)

As you might imagine, I have been getting comments and emails about these experiences, mostly of the variety: “What the F is going on, Al!?” I can’t really answer this type of question because I don’t really know what the F is going on!, beyond what I’m reporting here. I know most of you think I’m just screwing around with you, but I’m not. I have a feeling that as long as I’m able to keep this authorial distance I’ll be OK. So, back to the notebook. (My daughter Leah buys me these cool Japanese school notebooks that are really beautiful. I’m a notebook whore, having bought blank journals and notebooks over many years, and even made some of my own. After I’m dead, my children will find shelves of these books; I counsel tossing them all in the trash as 99% of the entries and material therein are the jottings of a perfectly normal nature, doodles, grocery lists, lists of books I have recently read or want to read, some attempts at diary-keeping, but mostly just thoughts that sometimes flicker into my head.

This week…

I called Jason Longwell of Longwell Construction. I was told they are the local guys you hire if you are having problems with your house’s understructure. Jason, a small, whip-thin guy, looked like he was not only able to crawl around tight spaces underneath old houses, but that he actually relished it. He listened to my story, not the story about something being under my house, but my story about the various structural problems that had been noted by the inspector when we bought the house. Problems that we had ignored.

“Pillars breaking down, possible asbestos contamination, animal activity, and anything else that might cause the house to fall in?” he said.

“It sounds fairly dire when I hear it coming from you,” I said. How much is this going to cost me, I thought.

The original idea, Mark’s idea, was to get a guy over here to go under the house and see if there was, what? Some sort of abnormal activity going on? Anything strange. I felt a surge of guilt. “You know there’s a lot of bugs under there,” I said. And ghosts, I thought.

He gave me a look that I’ve been on the receiving end of plenty of times since I moved south. The look said, oh shut up, you don’t have a clue about bugs, crawlspaces or much of anything else. Most of the time I deserve the look.

“I’m not going under there today,” Longwell said, “Not dressed like this.” He was wearing jeans, boots, and a t-shirt. “I’ll check it from the outside.” He went around the exterior of the ground floor. It turns out there were two entrances of the low wooden door variety on each side, entrances I hadn’t noticed before, plus the main access area where the heating unit is. I tagged along, tying to see around him as he crouched down at the entry doors and shined his flashlight into the interior. His flashlight was much bigger than mine. Finally he stood up and dusted himself off.

“You’ve definitely got some problems under there, but I’ll have to get closer before I can give you any sort of a price about making things right.” He must have taken pity on my new expression, which no doubt said: Go easy on me, I’m a pensioner. Donald Trump is taking away all my safety nets.

“Mr. Appel, I could go under any of the old houses in Hillsborough and find at least a dozen problems that need repair. Does that mean you have to do them all? No. It doesn’t even mean you have to do any of them. You’re going to pay me $100 to tell you what you should do, what you might consider doing, not what you have to do. You decide that on your own.”

I made an appointment for him to come back in a couple of days and investigate. He said he would give me a detailed report. I felt guilty knowing that I was probably not going to take him up on any further services; paying him his $100 fee when he was done would make me feel better. And him as well, I would imagine.

Back at the Lead Penny. The bourbon I was drinking, Noah’s Mill, dragged me away from my notebook. I looked it up on my phone and found it clocked in at 114.3 proof; no wonder it demanded attention. I liked it; readers of these pages know I prefer the higher-octane liquors, especially those, like this one, which had additional excellent flavors. I made a mental note to order it again when I was through with my list and had rejoined the ranks of pleasure-drinkers.

Now back at home in front of my computer typing up my notes from my notebook… As promised at the beginning of this entry, I looked up the reasons the word “spirit” has come to refer to alcohol. I’m going to mashup several articles and carve it down to manageable length. Here you go.

“Most believe the word “alcohol” originated in the Middle East since the prefix al is a definite article in Arabic–the debate is about which word it stems from, either al-koh’l or al-ghawl. This is the most straightforward way to link alcohol and spirits, as the word means spirit. The Qur’an–verse 37:47 mentions al-ghawl to refer to a demon or spirit that produces intoxication.

The word also translates as “ghoul.” (!!!!) ((That’s me adding the exclamation marks.))

“This may be a credible theory, as The Oxford English Dictionary lists al-koh’l as the origin for “alcohol.” It notes the word was incorporated into the English language during the sixteenth century. During that same century, “spirit” began to be used to refer to the intoxicating beverage.” And this from another article… “The word “Alcohol” comes from the Arabic “al-kuhl” which means “BODY EATING SPIRIT,” and gives root origins to the English term for “ghoul.” In Middle Eastern folklore, a “ghoul” is an evil demon thought to eat human bodies, either as stolen corpses or as children.” So there you have it, make of it what you will. I’d be happy to see comments if anyone has an opinion on how the two words – alcohol and ghoul – became linked.

 

Later that afternoon I tracked down the elusive Rafe.

 

Fifteen

OBAN                 LAGAVULIN

Turkey Burger, Habanero Cheddar, Grilled Onion, Tomato, Pickled Jalapenos

Mark’s home. Good, I was getting tired of drinking alone. Because I’m through with my no drinking experiment. Epic fail. Seeing the little girl, hearing her speak, feeling her brush my leg as she passed was real, or at least it was real to me. There’s one thing I’m sure of: I wasn’t drunk.

The Penny was in its usual dull roar around us. It was a bonus day, as far as the 69 drinks were concerned. I had a comment on an earlier blog from an old pal, Gordon Chaplin, professing his love for Lagavulin scotch. Since it was on the list, I ordered it. When the server showed up with our drinks he said that there hadn’t been enough left in the Lagavulin bottle for a reasonable pour, so he brought me what he had, gratis, and would bring me another, maybe the Oban 14-year-old. I agreed, so I was knocking off two drinks with one visit and one payment. Good thing, because both of them were $16 drinks.

Mark took a drink of his beer and made a face. Not a happy face. He’s a fan of sour beers, which I am training myself to like. He slid his glass over to me and I took a taste. I understood the face. It was the sourest beer I had ever tasted and had the additional overtone of road tar. The Lagavulin and the Oban were both superb.

I told him about my time when he was gone, cowering in my bed at night, my talk with Tom at the Ashburn House, and subsequent brush-off. My chat with Betty. Mark nodded through all of it, looking at me with that small smile that said he thought I was full of shit. But probably not crazy. Then he threw a real loop at me.

“The little girl,” he said. He pulled out his cell phone and hit a few buttons. He turned the phone toward me. “Is this her?”

I’m not sure how many more serious lurches my heart is going to give before blowing a valve. There she was, the little girl, only in my versions she has dark skin and the face is a little different. But not that different.

“It seems,” he said, “by your expression, you’ve answered my question.” He put his phone on the table. “That’s your little girl.”Sally Pic

I was stunned. I took a sip of my drink. It could have been ashes in my mouth for all I could tell. “I don’t know what to say. I feel like an idiot. I don’t know why I didn’t make the connection. That’s Sally, from the movie The Nightmare Before Christmas.

“Yup.”

 

By now I think Mark was aware that I was nearing the edge of some sort of pit. I had dug my own grave (why do all of these ghost clichés seem so apt?) with the no drinking experiment. I said that if the visions weren’t a product of too much alcohol, that left two choices, 1. I’m crazy, 2. It’s real.

“How’s my hair look, Mark?”

“Your hair? I dunno, fine I guess.”

If you’ve been reading these blog posts in order you know that in a previous one I said I had always noticed that all the really crazy people I’ve known over the years stopped washing their hair at a certain point as they descended into their various forms of madness. I had washed my hair this morning, so I must be ok. I know this observation and diagnosis didn’t have a lot of provable science behind it, but I still think the theory is sound.

“Where did you get that picture?” I asked. “How did you make the connection?”

Mark fiddled with the phone on the table. “You know I was at a big rare book fair in New York. Sometimes at these things they have an ancillary fair where people sell antiques other than books. I was looking through those aisles and came across an antique doll seller, and she had two modern dolls,” he tapped the phone, “in their original boxes. One was a girl doll and one was a boy doll. I was struck by how this one looked like how you described the little girl who may or may not live under your house. Particularly how the lips were sewed up.”

I’ll bet the other doll was Jack from the same film. When my kids were little, they saw the movie, and for Christmas we got Charlie the Jack doll because he seemed fascinated by it. Turns out that what we saw as fascination, he saw as terror. He hated that doll and never opened the box. It’s not exactly my little girl, the little girl I see in my backyard. She has some Raggedy Ann visual features thrown in as well. I conjured up an image of her in my mind. Yes, clearly a mix of the two dolls.

Mark continued. “So let’s just agree that you have more than a passing knowledge of the Sally character, and many hours logged watching a Raggedy Ann movie with your daughter, and somehow…”

I stopped him with a raised hand. “And somehow I’ve mashed up these two images in my mind. And…?”

“Well, you’re using them as a basis for… I don’t know.” He looked as baffled as I felt. “What you’re seeing under the house and in the shed.”

“I don’t know either. What am I going to do? This is clearly my mind making up an image and convincing me that it’s real. Real. Listen to me. It can’t be real.” For a moment I remembered the little girl running past me in the shed. I felt her brush my leg. Then what is it?

“I guess if we’re going to rule out the possibility that you’re bat-shit crazy we’re — you’re — going to have to keep trying to figure out what’s really going on. What’s Sherry say about all of this?”

“She doesn’t have any idea what’s going on, and I’m not going to try and explain it to her. This morning she asked if there was something bothering me, that I looked kind of pale and tired. I told her I was working on my blog about the 69 drinks. She understands when I’m working on a big project I wander around the house at night thinking and writing. I lose a lot of sleep. She’s used to it. Look, she knows I get kind of crazy when I’m writing a novel. The blog isn’t a novel, but I’m still immersed in two worlds.” I gestured around me at the crowded bar. “The 69 drinks and the rest of my everyday life is one world, lets call it World One, and whatever world it is where this doll exists, World Two. When I’m not in World One I’m sitting in a chair at 3:30 AM scaring the crap out if myself. So, maybe I’m ‘situational crazy.’ I just invented that term. It means sometimes I’m in a situation where I’m going to be at least a little bit insane, where maybe I have to be a little insane to succeed with the writing. I must have imagined the little girl as looking like something I knew, in this case a combination of Sally and Annie. The operative word here is imagined.

“But you didn’t imagine the light going on and off,” Mark said. “Or the shovel. I’m the one who found the shovel. I think we can both agree that I’m not crazy. And now the shovel has gone missing and you’re hearing someone, or something digging under your house. And you were saying about Sherry?”

“She’s going to go to her sister’s house sometime soon for a week or two, so I’ll have time to look into this stuff without worrying her. Meanwhile, I’ll go over to the historical society and try to find the records on my property and the house, and I’ll go back to the Ashburn House and find that guy Rafe that Betty told me about. Maybe he knows something.”

Mark took a sip of his beer. He was really having to work to get it down. “Here’s another idea” he said. “Since I’m not going back under the house, and I assume you aren’t either,” he paused long enough for me to give a shake of my head, “then why not hire someone else to go under there and see what’s going on?”

“You mean hire a kid and send him under there to his death or something?”

“No, don’t be ridiculous. A crawlspace professional. Someone in the building trades who does infrastructure diagnosis and work.”

Not a bad idea. Before we bought the house we had an inspector go over it from top to bottom. He pointed out that some of the pillars underneath were crumbling and should be replaced. And there was a possibility that one of the pipes had asbestos insulation wrapped around it. At the time, it hadn’t seemed particularly dire. I asked the inspector how long it was going to last if I don’t do anything? “Two years?”

“Maybe,” he said.

“Twenty years?” I asked.

“Maybe,” he said.

That was close enough for me. I’d get to it one of these days. Or maybe I’d die first and it would be someone else’s problem. But Mark’s idea would kill two birds with one stone (another death cliché). I’d get an opinion as to what was going on under there and an estimate for work that needed to be done at the same time. If the inspector didn’t notice anything odd, then we were back to square one: I’m batshit crazy.

“Good idea,” I said. I raised my glass in Mark’s direction. “Welcome home.”

 

Fourteen

NO DRINK

No Special of the Day

Remember the plan? No Drinking. No visit to the Penny. No Drinking at home.

When it was time to go to bed, I wasn’t the least bit sleepy. This was the first effect of the No Drinking rule. No alcohol to lull, or, on some nights, club me to sleep. Not that I ever made it through an entire night’s sleep in one seven or eight hour session; I usually fall asleep quickly for a couple of hours before waking up. The choice is always either lay there and try to outlast the wakefulness, which can take up to a couple of hours, or get up, put on my robe, do some work or read, and fall asleep in my comfortable chair in the TV room. For years as a kid I watched my father fall asleep in his recliner while watching TV and later watched my father-in-law fall asleep in a chair at my house while watching TV, and always I fought back the urge to yell at them, If you’re going to sleep, go to bed! Now I do the same thing: fall asleep in my chair in the evening while watching TV. Shameful. At least I don’t own a recliner.

So I’m lying in bed awake; Sherry is sleeping beside me. This was the plan, an experiment to see if my visions or hallucinations or whatever they are come to me when I’m not drinking. I thought I would sleep for at least a couple of hours before climbing out of bed and going downstairs to see if there was anything unusual happening. But it didn’t feel at all likely that I was going to fall asleep anytime soon. In a few minutes, I was bored.

I got up. Usually I wear just my fabulous thick blue Polo brand robe (a gift from my wife) when I’m wandering around, but tonight it was especially cold in the house. I threw an extra quilt over Sherry, pulled on my Puma sweatpants and a tee shirt. The robe went on over the ensemble. I pushed into my fleece-lined moccasin slippers and crept down the stairs.

Everything was quiet in Sherry’s office. Not a creature was stirring, not even a squirrel in the back yard. I had a drink of water and settled into my chair in the TV room with a clear view of Sherry’s desk, chair and file cabinet. If it was cool in the upstairs bedroom, it was positively frigid downstairs. I pulled one of the fleece lap rugs off the couch and over myself and fell asleep.

3:10. I could see the time on the cable box underneath the TV. I had snapped awake, unaware that I had ever fallen asleep. I sat in the chair, organizing my jumbled thoughts. Stick to the plan. Time to explore.

I stood up. It’s only a matter of 10 or so steps from my chair to the area of the floor in Sherry’s office where I had seen the light coming up from below. But those 10 steps are a minefield of creaking floorboards; I wanted to be stealthy this evening. Halfway there, three slow steps and I could see light glinting up through the cracks between the floorboards. More disturbing than that — after all, the light function could easily be tied to an electrical short — was the sound of digging. I wasn’t even down on the floor with my ear pressed against the boards, and I could hear the sound of blade on soil. I half expected to hear the sounds of a full-blown party emanating up. It was as if my taking time off from my nocturnal wanderings had encouraged whatever, spirits? what should I call them? apparitions to proceed with their agenda undisturbed by me.

A board creaked as I took my next step. The digging stopped. Silence. The light went off. I drew the logical conclusion: someone was under my house digging. After a minute spent getting my nerve up, I walked normally the rest of the way into the office. It was as dark and as quiet — oh hell, go ahead and say it — as a grave. It felt like the room was holding its breath. More silence. Whoever was under there wasn’t going to do anything as long as he/she knew I was standing overhead. Let me assure you, knowing someone was lying on the ground only a few feet beneath me was very disturbing. But just standing there wasn’t going to resolve anything. Time to check out the back yard.

I went into the kitchen. The backyard was brightly lit by one of those moons the weatherman on TV is always telling us viewers to look out for, a harvest moon, blue moon, hunters moon, a moon so clear it cast sharp shadows from the trees onto the grass. So bright I could see that the door to the shed was partially open. I always keep the door to the shed closed.

Always.

The shed is one of those wooden storage units that you see for sale outside Home Depot. Mine holds lawn equipment, old cans of paint, storm windows, a ladder, extension cords and various other tools and odds and ends that you don’t want to keep in the house. Oh, yeah, it also is where I stashed the old shovel that Mark found under the house. I wondered if it was still there.

If it wasn’t, that might answer some questions.

Well, maybe not answer some questions, and in fact it would pose even more questions, but it would help me decide if I was going crazy! If someone had taken the shovel out of the shed and was now under the house digging away, I would know I wasn’t just imagining it. I had two choices, open the door to the crawl space and shine my flashlight under there and take a look, though I’d probably have to climb in and take a good look around to be absolutely sure there was no one in there, even though I was pretty sure there was someone under there. Or, I could go outside, walk to the shed and see if the shovel was there. I needed to close the shed door anyway. Which would you choose?

The shed, of course. It wasn’t even close.

I cinched my robe tighter, unlocked the sliding glass door and edged it open. Warm air poured in over me. Hesitantly, I stepped out onto the small outside deck. It was at least thirty degrees warmer outside. What’s up with that? Why was it so cold in the house? I closed the door behind me. The mosquitos are murder in North Carolina, I didn’t want them getting into the house. I almost laughed. Mosquitos? I was worried about mosquitos?

I padded across the backyard in my slippers and pulled open the shed door. I checked in the corner on my left. There’s no light in the shed, but there was more than enough moonlight to see. The shovel was gone.

Case closed, I thought.

As I turned back to leave, I heard something move in the back of the shed.

I didn’t even think about it because I knew if I did I would have leapt outside, slammed the shed door shut and run like hell for the house.

Groundhog? Squirrel? Possum?

I tried to calm myself, but I was ready to run. I took a couple of deep breaths. I thought about what a chicken-shit coward I was being. I turned back and lifted a piece of tin roofing off the pile where the storm windows were stacked. There was a natural little hidey-hole in the back there. I looked inside.

There was the little girl. Raggedy Ann. She with the no nose, no fingers and the sewed-up lips. My heart lurched, and I would have run, would have loved to run, but my legs were locked. I was so scared I couldn’t move.

She was looking at me. “He say I should hide here,” she said in a little girl’s voice. Clearly.

CLEARLY!

She leapt out of her hole and ran by me, out the door. I felt her brush my leg. By the time I got my breathing under control and was sure I hadn’t crapped in my pants, I looked out the doorway toward the house. She was gone. I didn’t know where.